Hunted by the Sky begins with a somewhat sneaky first few chapters: the novel focuses first on one character—and introduces its second point-of-view character only afterwards, making its opening what can best be referred to as an extended “prologue.” Those first few chapters are focused on Gul, of Ambar, one of the four main kingdoms in Svapnalok or “dream country.” Inspired by Indian and Persian mythology, the four kingdoms all have magic systems reminiscent of the four elements, with Ambar being the domain of the elusive and powerful Sky Goddess. Hunted By The Sky weaves both of its source cultures together seamlessly in a single world that embraces diversity in a genuine way: there are mentions of outfits like a sari pallu, and ghagra choli; words like prasad, samarpan and salutations like didi or greetings like shubhsaver; food like kachori; there is a peri with clipped wings who enchants the crowd with their enthralling singing. And Gul’s name means rose in Persian.
As Gul is growing up, she and her parents are always on the run. They go from one town to the next, trying to outrun the local ruler Raj Lohar’s Sky Warriors, who are looking for the girl with a star-shaped birthmark who is prophesied to bring the downfall of Raj Lohar’s reign. In Ambar, though people who can wield magic—called magi—are held in the highest regard in society, certain magic is outlawed. Gul’s star-shaped birthmark puts a target on her back, then: it doesn't matter that her magic is not nearly as potent as her classmates’ at school. She watches girls her age with similar birthmarks get taken away by the Sky Warriors, never to be seen again. So she and her parents go into hiding, until they can’t hide anymore and the Warriors finally find them. Gul watches her parents’ murder from where she is cleverly hidden by her mother, safe but helpless to save them. After the ordeal with the Sky Warriors, Gul is taken in by the secret Sisterhood of the Golden Lotus. “Witches, some men call them. Thieves. Fighters, my mother told me” (p. 17). They offer her a place among them, since they believe she might be the girl in the prophecy—and Gul only reinforces this idea by swearing to break into the palace and take her revenge on Raj Lohar for the murder of her parents.
What follows is a swift and somewhat jarring skip in time. We meet Cavas, a stable boy in the Raj’s palace, and he becomes the story’s new focus, as does his struggle to help his ailing father in the tenements. The tenements are where the outcast and downtrodden non-magic folk live, and there they face catching tenement fever, like Cavas’s father, or begging and stealing what drops of magic they can from the magi. They are called “dirt lickers” by the mag, and Cavas has little to no way of getting his father the medicine he needs—until he meets the elusive Latif. With the help of a magical green coin, Cavas is able to summon Latif, who brings him the medicine while asking for gossip and secrets from the Raj’s stables in return. With Latif’s guidance, Cavas and Gul cross paths during the Moon Festival. Cavas is besotted at first, however his thoughts change once he learns Gul is not a non-magi like him, further emphasising the divide between the two classes. Meanwhile, we find Gul a changed woman since the prologue: now fully trained by the Sisterhood and with a lot more confidence, she has all but mastered the magic she has within her, and this means she can “whisper” to animals and form bonds with them. This is different from the more revered form of magic that the Sky Warriors use— named “death magic” and explained mostly as a powerful burst of light used in combat—but Gul still manages to use whispering to her advantage.
One of the few issues I had with Hunted by the Sky was the pacing, especially at this juncture. The novel’s plot tends to flounder and then pick up again at odd points—with some considerable gaps, for example as here after that prologue. When they first meet, Gul is a complete mystery both to Cavas and to the reader, and the change in Gul was so considerable that I second-guessed how much time had passed between this moment and when Gul joined the Sisterhood, or what exactly has she done there to achieve this development. The novel is not always elegant at moments like this.
Indeed, Gul is now closer than ever to completing her self-assigned mission, and meeting Cavas proves to be what pushes her down the teetering precipice and puts the prophecy in motion. Although the Sisterhood is all but sure that she is the one, Gul’s motivation throughout the book focuses heavily on avenging her parents’ deaths: she struggles to accept the prophecy and the leadership role she must play in the rebellion. Cavas, on the other hand, is forced to reconcile the clash between his beliefs about the magi and his blossoming affection toward Gul. Latif means to have Cavas help Gul break into the palace—but as Cavas unearths some family secrets and, thanks to Gul, gets into more trouble than he is ready for, the situation makes him less than willing to help.
Out of the four kingdoms of Svaplanok—Ambar, Prithvi, Jwala, and Samudra—Ambar is said to be the source of rot, the place with the most moral decay. The divide between magi and non-magi people, the terrible conditions in which non-magi people live is just one aspect of this degradation. Desperate to find a way into the palace after Cavas refuses to help, Gul learns this the hard way by almost giving herself away at the Flesh Market, where people have the choice to sell themselves as an indentured servant to the palace or to other buyers. When Cavas sees an indentured laborer suffering from the cruelty of Raj’s Sky Warriors’, meanwhile, he thinks to himself, “Better him than me” (p. 122). This survival instinct only re-enforces the vicious kingdom’s cycle of oppression.
The narration after this point gives Gul and Cavas equal importance, getting into their individual psyches but also painting detail onto their surroundings with side characters who come alive, from Gul’s three mentors in the Sisterhood—their leader, Juhi, who has scrying powers and more secrets than anyone can count; Amira, who shows tough love to Gul and trains her; and, lastly, kind-hearted Kali—to Ruhani Kaki in Cavas’s village, who offers him food and much needed wisdom along with tales of the past. Bhathena’s past young adult contemporary works (A Girl Like That  and The Beauty of the Moment ) must have given her some experience in crafting believable and well-rounded secondary characters, because I found each of these characters and others more tangible, and on a more comparable level to the two main characters, than other examples in young adult fantasy that I could think of. (Gul and Cavas had distinct voices in my head, too, though at some point I switched to the audiobook—narrated by Neil Shah and Soneela Nankani—so the characters literally had distinct voices.)
This knack for characterisation is a key means by which the novel achieves its remarkable diversity. For example, the worldbuilding is such that it allows for characters from many different backgrounds of faith to coexist: some pray to the sky goddess and some to Sant Javer, some to Prophet Zaal and there are also those who are atheists. Everyone has heard different stories and myths as children and has experienced a variety of cultures. There is also casual queer representation: the fateful night when Gul and Cavas meet is a celebration dedicated to two goddesses, “friends first and then lovers” (p. 35). This is definitely something I hope we see more of at the forefront in the novel’s sequels.
The worldbuilding also sets the scene for a more intense, much more high stakes sequel—but at times Bhathena has to rely on oddly allusive conversations between characters, or having them eavesdrop at just the right time, in order to convey the worldbuilding to the reader, rather than giving herself the time to take a more immersive approach. There is, though, significant potential to build upon: I would like to see more of the folkloric and mythological elements and their sources of inspiration, more about the living specters and the peri, or of the powerful Pashu, animal-like creatures which wield immense magic and who were defeated by the Raj.
There is currently one other book in The Wrath of Ambar series, the second in the sequence, Rising Like a Storm. I am eager to get to it as soon as possible. Gul’s journey as a hero has the rush and excitement of An Ember in the Ashes (2015) and the mystery romance element of Girl, Serpent, Thorn (2020). But perhaps in subsequent volumes Bhathena might emphasise the excitement more – and the rush less.