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Nathan’s review of The Last Phi Hunter by Salinee Goldenberg

The tl;dr: Salinee Goldenberg arrives with her debut novel – a dark demon slaying adventure fantasy with endearing characters and just a touch of romance. Set in a Thai-inspired world, The Last Phi Hunter takes readers along with the monster hunter Ex as he attempts to slay the demon of nightmares. A mysterious pregnant woman disrupts his plans, introducing some very real human horrors in addition to the spirit ones. This book is like The Witcher, but with more heart and personality. Fans of dark fantasy, demons, magical spirits, and fun main characters will have a lot to feast on here.

 

Cover of The Last Phi Hunter

 

My Review:

A Thai-inspired fantasy world. A young man on a quest to slay a demon. A pregnant woman mysteriously on the run. Necromancers with political plots. A slow burn romance.

All of this and more await readers within the pages of The Last Phi Hunter, the debut novel by Salinee Goldberg that completely enraptured me and left me hungry for more.

The best way that I can describe The Last Phi Hunter is that it is The Witcher with more humor and heart. I’m not sure if it was Andrzej Sapkowski’s style, or if it was just a bad English translation, but I always found The Witcher series to be devoid of much personality – and I bounced off of it quite quickly after the monster-slaying short stories. The Last Phi Hunter is everything that I wanted The Witcher to be – sly and unnerving demons, a charismatic protagonist, and a plot that alternates between heart-warming and heart-wrenching. If you like your monster/demon slayers, but you also want the book bursting with personality, than this needs to be at the top of your TBR.

So much of my love for this book is because of the main character, Ex. He is a lone and determined demon slayer and the titular Phi Hunter, and Goldenberg nailed his characterization. Ex is young-ish (I think he is in his mid-twenties if I recall correctly), and he’s in this phase in his life where he has left the vigorous naivete of adolescence, and yet hasn’t quite reached the upper echelons of social maturity. This is a very narrow lane for the character to fall into, but it works wonders. Ex is old enough that Goldenberg is able to avoid the trappings of a “coming of age” narrative, and yet Ex is not yet hardened and closed off from the world around him. He is joyful, funny, and sees the world with wonder – all while recognizing that political opinion is swaying against magic-users like him. He is very much aware of the dangers he is in, and the danger he presents to those around him, Therefore, readers get to run along this journey with a young man who brings so much life and personality to a world swimming in darkness – both of the demon and human varieties.

While The Last Phi Hunter is definitely Ex’s book, Goldenberg surrounds him with some wonderful characters. Arinya is a mysterious pregnant woman on the run, and she ends up playing a major role in both the magical and political machinations in the book. She acts as a good counter-weight to Ex. I can’t get into too much detail without spoiling her arc, but she is a slightly older and wiser characters, someone who has seen more of the world and has had a much more complicated social relationship with it. Arinya is kept a bit at arms length because she is not a POV character, and honestly some readers may be disappointed by a lack of character development overall. However, the characters are so full of life that it didn’t both me; the book is short and takes place over a short span, and so I didn’t mind that the individual character arcs were a bit more reigned in.

I again don’t want to get to spoiler-ly with things, but a sweet romance does develop that feels complex and complicated without ever feeling contrived or annoying. If you like romance in your books, there is enough there to satisfy you, but it never overwhelms the cool demon-slaying if romance isn’t really your thing.

The demon-slaying and romance are set amongst a backdrop of a Thai-inspired world influenced by the indigenous folklore and Buddhist philosophy. This made the book feel distinct from many other fantasy books, both in the way that it thought about the nature of world, spirits, and animals, but also just the “feel” of the setting. Goldenberg takes her readers through forest and swamps that feel so much different than the European-inspired forests of yore. This is dark world, including demons whose heads leave their bodies but bring their entrails with them, but the ethos of the book never feels overly grim or nihilistic. There are horrors and thrills to be had, but never in a way that feels overly gratuitous or over-the-top.

There are only two major-ish things that didn’t work for me in this book.

The first is that the ending felt quite rushed. The book on the whole is quite fast-paced and the book is short (for a fantasy novel), but in general the pacing for most of the book was quite strong – the book centers on only a handful of characters with specific and direct goals. However, by the end Goldenberg has thrown a lot of balls in to the air….and you can feel the seams of the narrative as she doesn’t quite know how to bring them all down. We go on this quest with the characters, and then everything seems to be wrapped up in a “blink and you miss it” kind of way. On one page there are numerous threats with complex plans and by the next page they are all just gone. It was the ending that sealed this as a four, rather than five, star book for me.

Having said that, the emotional beats of the finale landed with me, and I felt every bit of happiness and pain that the characters were left with in the last couple of chapters. I just wish that the plot arcs were wrapped with the same care as the emotional arcs.

The other element of the book that I was a bit down on was that I felt that the secondary POV character (a demon) was underutilized. Throughout the book we shift to her POV to get a glimpse of a demon’s side of things, and I was quite emotionally attached to her character. It was a fascinating alternative look at the world than what we got with Ex, and again I thought that the plot threads here were wrapped up too quickly. The book would have been even stronger with just more time dedicated to this, and many of the other arcs in the book.

If the worst thing I have to say about a book is that it’s too short, that’s definitely a win! Goldenberg avoids the bloat of many fantasy books with an adventurous and emotionally resonant debut. I’m not sure if the ending of The Last Phi Hunter was opening up for a sequel or was just an “open ending”, but I will follow Goldenberg’s authorial journey wherever she goes next.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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