2020’s Hunted by the Sky is the first volume in Tanaz Bhathena’s Wrath of Ambar series.
Alarmed by a prophecy that an unnamed girl with a star-shaped birthmark would be his downfall, Ambar’s King Lohar did what so many rulers of myth and legend have done: command his Sky Warriors to find and kill every girl with such a birthmark.
Gul is a star-marked girl; she survives because her parents sacrificed their lives to protect her. The murderous assault that was intended to save the king’s life has left Gul determined to kill both the ruler and his right hand man, homicidal sadist Major Shayla.
That said, she’s a fourteen-year-old home-schooled orphan with no access to the king and no real training in combat or magic. Killing Lohar will be a challenge.
For the moment, Gul settles for hiding from the authorities while stealing food to survive. Her path crosses that of the Sisters of the Golden Lotus, a secretive anti-Lohar cabal. No coincidence: like the Sky Warriors, the Sisters are actively searching for star-marked girls. Unlike the Sky Warriors, the Sisters recruit the surviving girls. Each of the Sisters has good reason to hate the king; they hope that one of the star-marked girls could be the one fated to kill him.
Several years of training later, Gul is a deadly warrior (and a pickpocket as well), though her magic remains weak. She definitely has some magic talent — which is good, because those without magic are a despised minority in Ambar — but for reasons unclear, she can only access it when she feels threatened. It’s not at all clear that she could get close to the king or kill him were she to get close.
This is where Cavas comes into the story. He belongs to the magicless minority; he lives in Ambar Fort, where he tends to animals. Lohar also lives in Ambar Fort. Cavas could be a way in to the fort and the presence of the king. Cavas is of considerable interest to the Sisters. Gul runs into him in the market; there’s an attraction; perhaps he will help Gul get within stabbing distance of the King.
What could go wrong? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Mythology is full of rulers who, alarmed at doleful prophecies, took steps to prevent them from coming true. Those steps ensured that the prophecies would come true. Lohar doesn’t heed the many such warnings. Tch tch. Of course, it becomes clear in the course of the book that he’s such a jerk that even if the girls fail, someone is going to overthrow him . Now I’m not going to spoil the book and tell you whether or not Gul succeeds, but I can assure you that a bookie would give poor odds that Lohar will live long enough to die of old age.
I’m a bit surprised that this book was promoted as a YA novel. The setting features slavery, murder, and sexual abuse — not described in squicky detail, but we know it’s there.
One always hopes that by the end of the novel, good government will be restored, right will triumph, etc. This is only the first book, but it seems unlikely that there will be much improvement in the general welfare by the end of the series because, while the masses resent being treated badly, they’re quite keen on abusing anyone who is weaker. Even our protagonists aren’t exemplars of selfless dedication to the good. They’ve been treated badly and want revenge. But … fingers crossed.
Although the broad strokes of the story are familiar genre tropes, Bhathena’s world, which draws from Indian and Persian sources, will intrigue. As well, Gul and Cavas are engaging characters, deftly limned in Bhathena’s skillful prose.
1: It doesn’t help that Lohar’s family gained power in what amounted to a coup. If they could do it, why not some brighter, even more ruthless person?