Jon Skovron’s first foray into the world of adult fantasy (having previously only published YA novels) is a dark, fast-paced tale of two unlikely anti-heroes that serves as the first act of a new trilogy. The narrative follows Hope – the lone survivor of a village put to death for the sake of a mysterious experiment ordered by the Emperor – and Red – a sex worker’s son from the impoverished slums of the capital city with a knack for thievery – as their fate takes them down seemingly opposite but strangely similar paths until finally their stories collide. Hope and Red is not a book for the faint of heart, as it is ripe with vulgar language and some particularly cringe-inducing fight scenes, but if you can stomach the nastiness I think you’ll find the overall product to be quite satisfying.
As a fantasy title, this book does a few things right that are sadly not often present in the genre. For example, it was nice that Red’s struggling single parent who worked as a sex worker was his father, shying from the usual fantasy interpretation of sex work as women reducing themselves to near slavery to be treated very poorly by big, strong, mean men as a result of having no other skills or services to offer. In Hope and Red, the representation of sex work seems a little more educated than your usual fare, and at one point Red recalls a conversation with his dad about his profession, which the father turns into a genuinely touching discussion about sex, love, and intimacy. This is also the only fantasy novel that I am aware of with a transgender character, and while there may be some generalization about what it is to be trans, they are still a positive, powerful character. It is very rare to find a trans character in any kind of action-oriented story that wasn’t just written in to be the butt of some transphobic joke.
My only real complaint with Hope and Red, is that at this point in the story Hope very much fits an archetypal character quite common in fiction featuring women written by men. She is the stereotypical “woman in a man’s world,” excelling at a profession that is generally considered to be “a man’s job,” and as such is often written to be as “un-feminine,” as possible. Not that those people don’t exist, but as a fem it gets tiresome real fast to always be reading about the girl who gave up her feminine identity to follow her passion, as if she couldn’t have both.
Overall Hope and Red, is a quick, entertaining read with enough substance to keep you wanting more. There’s lots of world-building and plot-weaving in this title, building a solid base for the sequels to stand on. It’s kind of like if the “Game of Thrones,” books swapped out half of their political intrigue in favor of outright badassery, or if Jeff Somers wrote a sword and sorcery fantasy series. If any of that appeals to you, be sure to add this book to your collection.