REVIEW: The Last Phi Hunter by Salinee Goldenberg

Wildly entertaining, The Last Phi Hunter is Salinee Goldenberg’s Thai-inspired debut fantasy. The story follows Ex, the youngest member of the Phi Hunters Order, who is set out on the road to glory in hopes to slay the infamous Shar-Ala, a demon of nightmares. His journey is abruptly interrupted when he becomes an unwitting escort for a pregnant runaway who desperately needs to get through a spirit-infested forest. On this journey, the two become entangled in a complicated web of demons, assassins, and nefarious political schemes. Goldenberg’s writing is vibrant and refreshing, balancing the humour of her characters with the darkness of the lore, which provides readers with a truly engrossing experience. The story is gory and visceral in its descriptions, whilst also charming and humorous, perfect for fans who enjoy their grimdark books with a certain aspect of lightness to it.

The Last Phi HunterGoldenberg’s characters are brilliant. The narrative in The Last Phi Hunter is told through multiple point of views, but the most frequent is Ex’s. He is incredibly endearing and a very easy character to root for. His humour throughout the book was a true gem, cutting through the gritty settings and gruesome creatures. The parallel worked well in balancing the story, allowing us to see Ex as both a feared hunter, as well as a bashful young man, watching him fumble his words around his pretty ward. He was truly an entertaining protagonist to follow, and I found myself laughing constantly at his naïvety and sly remarks. The character connections in the book are another aspect that I adored. Ex has multiple animal companions, who may not seem like major characters in the book, but who are always lurking around and ready for whatever insane adventure Ex has planned next. The romance is a sub-plot that has been woven into the story quite well, although I personally felt like the chemistry between Ex and Arinya felt more like a connection of friendship, rather than a romantic one.

Amongst the multiple narratives was Narissa, a krasue – a demon whose head detaches from her body and wanders around with her entrails hanging below her, whilst her human vessel slumbers underground. I enjoyed flitting from Ex’s perspective to Narissa’s, and finding more similarities between them than the obvious differences. Both are loners, and thriving for an end goal that feels impossible: Ex’s capture of Shar-Ala, and Narissa’s desire for redemption.  Readers witness many interactions between Ex and other phi too. Ex is able to enter the spirit world (known as the Everpresent, a realm between the real world and the deva’s), and communicate with the phi. Giving voice to the phi was insightful yet grim, especially when you consider the karmic element to their being. All phi were once human, who indulged in vices to such an extreme they they were then forced to live out their lives as demons. The book begins as so:

“No two phi were ever alike, but every Hungry Ghost and demon in old Suyoram shared one thing in common – they had all been human once. And that made them more dangerous than any other creature, dead or alive.”

The humanisation of the demons is particularly grimdark in itself, as emphasising their past human lives brings about a dire and bleak resolution to their current existence; they now exist to haunt, attack and essentially be hunted for the rest of their lives.

It would be impossible to write about The Last Phi Hunter and not mention Goldenberg’s sensational depiction of Thai and South East Asian inspired settings. Not only were the details of the phi and various other creatures so vivid, but any mention of food, clothing and architecture were sublime. These are all aspects that hold a great amount of weight in many Asian cultures, and so reading such detailed accounts of each felt like a welcoming embrace against the backdrop of the terrifying tale being told. The immense detail in the world-building is applaudable, painting a clear picture of the settings and characters so well. This was my first foray into the darker lore of South East Asian mythology, and it certainly will not be the last!

With The Last Phi Hunter, Goldenberg has written a fantasy world that satisfyingly concludes in and of itself. Whether she decides to add more to the universe or not, she has certainly left her mark on the dark-fantasy genre. She explores themes of identity and loneliness, companionship and community, all with a seamless grace. The story was captivating and unique. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future!

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Saberin C

Saberin C

Saberin lives in London and works in publishing. More often than not, you can find her with her nose in a fantasy book or doing whatever it takes to get her cats attention! You can find her on @sabisreading on instagram, where she posts all about her current reads, reviews, fictional fixations and general ramblings on life (with the occasional picture of Kiara, the meanest cat to ever exist).

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