In the Hinterlands, the working poor eke out a meager hand to mouth existence. Unsponsored males can’t work in town, leaving the only legitimate jobs restricted to being manual laborers in the timber or mining industries or licensed sex workers, known as Red Hoods. As if life in the outskirts isn’t dangerous enough, pubescent-aged male Red Hoods are targeted at night by a creature that savagely rips them apart. Their only guaranteed safety is to be escorted by a female or be home before nightfall.
At the ripe old age of 13, Janson applied for a job at the mines, but was too slight for manual labor. Having noticed the interest his face and body garner from men (and having used them to acquire goods for his family), Janson joined the Red Hood guild. Now, in his late teens, Janson is offered an apprenticeship in the linguistics department of the Biblioforum from a former client. Given this rare sponsorship, which can elevate his station and bring in more income for his growing family, Janson dedicates himself to learning all he can and thrives. He even sparks up a tentative friendship with a jovial fellow apprentice named Owein. The downside (besides having to service his former client for free now) is that apprenticeships are unpaid. Between the long hours and the curfew, Janson’s time to earn money as a Red Hood is drastically reduced, and he’s constantly skirting the edges of sunset.
Despite his caution, Janson must leave the house one night in search of help for his sister and is cornered by the Creature. Unlike his fellow Hoods, Janson not only survives the encounter, but finds himself being courted by the strange beast. Soon, he and his Creature form a bond because “[actions speak] louder than words…in the slums of Terra 5” and the Creature’s gestures of affection, such as food and coin, help Janson provide for his family. “But, more than that, he felt safe, wanted—cared for even, hard proof in every item his Creature had left him over the past couple of months… He felt loved, even if it were not in the traditional sense. It was more than he had ever had before. It was enough.”
Being a Red Hood, Janson never expected to become romantically involved; yet, what began as wary camaraderie on Janson’s part and persistent interest on Owein’s becomes another intimate connection, one that gives Janson the human conversation and normalcy his relationship with his Creature lacks—both making a complete whole for Janson. Unfortunately, neither partner can completely protect Janson. While sex work is a legitimate occupation, Red Hoods are low on the social scale and targets of brutality from clients, law enforcement, and citizens, and the precariousness of Janson’s status is ruthlessly conveyed when he is forced to seek help and finds himself optionless and trapped. With his tie to Owein in question and his Creature unable to find him, Janson fears he may never escape the belly of the beast.
Red Hood is a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” that, according to author Suter, pays tribute to the “salacious glory” of the originals and “bring[s] back the sex to spice things up again.” Red Hood is an interesting blend of sci-fi/fantasy and fable genres. The prologue establishes that the story is set in a future that is technologically advanced enough to have mastered efficient space travel and terraforming of multiple planet/planetoid worlds within a star system for many generations. However, the main feel of the environment is the more primitive/medieval-esque setting that is a staple of the fantasy genre—complete with guilds, gaslights, horse-driven carriages, etc. The one example of tech and mention of a star system actually seem anachronistic and a bit jarring given that 98% of the narrative is deeply immersed in a ‘ye olden times’ aesthetic.
As a sci-fi lover, I was happily surprised when I read the prologue, yet I didn’t mind the primitive colonial setting until the random introduction of tech, which conjured many questions in my nerd brain the text has no interest in answering. This mostly doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, as its premise and storytelling is very engaging. My only real quibble comes at the end, which leans heavily on the sci-fi element and raises even more logistical questions. It also further highlights how contrived a certain event and the characters’ responses to it are. It was head-scratching when it happened because the narrative had already shown that issues/miscommunications of a similar nature are addressed and dealt with, but the ending makes it clear that this major misunderstanding only remains unaddressed to serve a fairly obvious plot point.
Told in 3rd person limited and split into three parts, the narrative mainly follows Janson in his daily life, showing his pragmatic dedication to taking care of his family; how much he values is freedom; his intelligence and the different ways he wields it in his occupations; and the constant uncertainty he labors under. However, the reader is also privy to the thoughts and feelings of the Creature who has a limited ability to speak the colony’s language, making Janson’s eventual affection for it more understandable because outside of the being’s higher cognitive capabilities and being bipedal, it isn’t remotely humanoid and is feared for eviscerating teenage boys. Though the creature is cold, serpentine, and wolfish, Suter still manages to get me to emotionally invested in their unorthodox relationship and appreciate how this unusual being takes care of Janson when no one else does.
You’d think dating a feared monstrosity whose animal instincts have it bringing dead animals as courting gifts would be Janson’s most challenging relationship, but nope, it’s the one with Owein that has Janson in knots. The fact that Janson never has any interactions with males, especially friendly ones, who aren’t interested in his body makes him standoffish with Owein; his reticence isn’t lessened by Owein’s identity and naïveté regarding how society works for those in the slums. Even when they’re finally on the same page, something always happens to shake them up and make Janson feel less than and question Owein’s commitment to him as:
Owein might care for Janson, just as Janson cared for him, but it was not the same. Owein had not gone to such lengths to prove his love to Janson, not like his Creature had done. That kind of loyalty meant more than most in Janson’s world.
Moreover, Owein is kinda boring as a love interest, his most defining characteristic being his persistence when it comes to wooing Janson. While, he’s shown to be very understanding and compassionate, he has no real personality; however, given the fable framework and that most characters in them serve as archetypes rather than individuals, this underdevelopment can be overlooked as Owein serves his purpose.
All in all, Red Hood is a creative, compelling retelling that makes monster fucking seem like a totally viable option, while maintaining some of the parabolic lessons at the core of the original fable.