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Book Review: The Umbra King, by Jamie Applegate Hunter

I picked up a copy of Jamie Applegate Hunter‘s The Umbra King as an Amazon freebie. The author is quite active on TikTok. So, she’d passed my feed numerous times, and I was tempted.

The morally grey don’t want redemption. They want retribution.

After the brutal murder of her twin sister, Aurora “Rory” Raven spends years forging herself into a ruthless vigilante killer.

She never gave up her search for the man who killed her sister, but when she is convicted of thirteen murders and sentenced to five-hundred years in Vincula, the prison realm, she knows her sister’s death will never be avenged.

After arriving in Vincula, Aurora discovers her opportunity for retribution is closer than she thought.

Caius is the notorious Umbra King, ruler of Vincula, King of the Monsters, and the thing nightmares are made of. After being locked in his own realm for a crime he didn’t commit, his only focus has been revenge.

But when Aurora drops into his throne room, representing everything he despises, they begin a game of cat and mouse, and before long, their hatred turns into something else.

Circumstances draw them together, but revenge might tear them apart.

my review*Spoiler warning*

I seem to be in the minority, but I did not enjoy this. In fact, I own both books in the duology, but I’m not going to bother reading book two (and I hate leaving things unfinished). I will preface my complaints with the fact that the writing is fine. The book is perfectly readable (if overly long). I just didn’t like it.

I have several issues that all sort of roll up together. For one, despite the spice, this book felt juvenile to me. There are just too many scenes of hanging out with friends like carefree youths to match the intended seriousness of the story. Some of that hanging out is doing things like having a foot race to the treehouse, like kids. So, when I say that the tone of some parts doesn’t match others, I’m serious. The heroine is a serial killer, let me remind you.

Second, Rory shows up in what is essentially a cushy prison and is instantly treated differently than anyone else. She gets away with things no one else can, even before anyone realizes she’s a fated mate to the king. This begs the question, is she able to get away with things because she’s special, or is the fact that she’s special based on the fact that she gets away with things? The order matters because, in one scenario, the reader is left wondering why she is being given allowances no one else is when no reason (besides being the heroine) is provided. It’s a disconnect. The reader is basically being told how special she is and not at all being shown her being special; it’s the circumstances that are special.

Last and most importantly, a two-parter: You know what trope I hate more than any other trope in the whole world? It’s the scorned women as the villain trope. This trope is largely straight-up misogyny. It’s centuries of women being told they can’t trust one another, that sex is a resource that can be used to garner another resource (a man). Thus, that resource can be stolen by other women and must be guarded. Failing that, the loss can be vindicated. I HATE THIS TROPE WITH A BURNING FIERY PASSION. It makes my heart hurt when female authors write it. We—the entire female population—deserve better.

Hunter leans into this hard in this book and doesn’t do it with any subtly. The transactional nature of the scorned lover’s sexual appetite is wholly apparent. She is not only a scorned lover. She is a scorned lover who was only a lover to stand close to power. She then used her sexuality to manipulate other men into trying to remove her obstacle to returning to the king’s bed. Imagine a tree with all the plots imaginable at your fingertips and choosing to reach for the one hanging closest to the ground. She also has absolutely zero depth or character outside of this one-dimensional misogynistic presentation.

But the use of the scorned lover trope is problematic in this book for a second reason too. I’m not 100% sure how to express this. But I’ll do my best.

Hunter sets up what is a pretty complex world. (I could quibble with the stability and consistency of the world, but I’ll set that aside.) The world is geographically small but consists of several sorts of magics, three realms, multiple layers of deities, etc. She provides a serial killer heroine with a fairly intricate backstory and a tragic, dark king as a love interest. It’s a big, complex world that is staged for a big, complex plot. Then, Hunter wrote a small, tight, personally vindictive story that we’ve all read a million times before and utilized none of the complexity available to it.

The world, as written, should be supporting inter-realm intrigue, including assassinations and Machiavellian machinations. Instead, we’re given a jealous ex-girlfriend, innumerable drinks at the bar with bubbly friends, and more staircases than I can count. We still have the murders and attempted assassinations, oddly, but they don’t fit in with a small-scale plot. Sure, the ex the umbra king photomight be a mean girl, but leaping to murder feels super forced and out of place in the context of the plot. Those attempted murders feel like they should be coming from large, political-level players, not the king’s ex-fleshlight with a face. The ex-girlfriend as a villain was simply too mundane and unimportant to fit with the rest of Hunter’s story structure. It felt dwarfed by its surroundings. Why, for example, do I need a multiple-page world guide for a story that might as well be set in a high school?

All in all, this one was a great big ol’ flop for me.

Other Reviews:

I can’t decide which to include. So, here is a whole list of reviews: The Umbra King Reviews