Exclusive Interview: “The Last Phi Hunter” Author Salinee Goldenberg


In the following email interview about her novel The Last Phi Hunter (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Salinee Goldenberg discusses why this is more of a dark fantasy story than a silkpunk one…but then adds, “Sadly, I didn’t realize dark fantasy was used a lot to describe kinda toxic romance with fantasy elements. Oops.”

Salinee Goldenberg The Last Phi Hunter

To begin, what is The Last Phi Hunter about, and what kind of a world is it set in?

The elevator pitch is “It’s The Witcher meets Princess Mononoke, but in a Thai-inspired world with a protagonist that does more than grunt!”

Ha, just kidding Geralt, you know I love you.

The Last Phi Hunter follows Ex, a scrappy and ambitious young ghost hunter, who is on his way to slay a legendary demon when his quest gets sidelined by Arinya, a pregnant runaway who bails him out of a brutal ass kicking. She hires him for escort through the dangerous woods, but is hiding some dangerous secrets that will drag him into a larger adventure.

Where did you get the idea for this story?

It was a combination of a short story about a demon hunter that could commune with his prey, an abandoned Grimdark novella inspired by Thai culture, and a random scene of a drunk merc getting saved by a pregnant woman in a roadside tavern. It didn’t click until I started seeing more non-western fantasies being published, so I thought I’d throw in my own take.

And is there a reason why Ex slays ghosts and demons as opposed to monsters? Are you just a bigger fan of Ghostbusters than The Witcher?

In this story, a “monster” is more of a descriptive label than an actual type of creature. The Hungry Ghosts in Buddhist folklore aren’t mindless fodder for XP, they were all once human, now reincarnated into cursed forms as karmic punishment for past sins. I wanted to explore that idea: how does one become a phi? And who gets to decide who is worthy of punishment or redemption? There are monsters in the story, but it has nothing to do with the form a being takes, but rather, their deeds and actions.

Similarly, is there a reason why you made Arinya nine months pregnant as opposed to eight or four or, conversely, the mother of a newborn or a two-year-old?

Hmm, how to answer this without spoilers?

Well, in order to explore some of the complicated issues surrounding motherhood and body autonomy that make up much of Arinya’s story, I wanted her child to be a character that hadn’t yet been born. The idea of reincarnation is heavy in the story — what is a soul as opposed to a life, when does it matter, how do we cope in tragic circumstances.

The Last Phi Hunter has been called a dark fantasy tale, though it seems like it might also be silkpunk. How do you describe it, genre-wise, and why that way?

I suppose it could be considered silkpunk to some extent. There is an obvious Asian-aesthetic in the Kingdom Of Suyoram, and a running theme of capitalistic progress threatening to destroy the natural world.

But I didn’t think of calling it that because for a “-punk” genre, I’d want an aspect of new technology or some kinda revolutionary or antisocial conceit being discussed. The Phi Hunters are kinda on the opposite side, quietly watching their traditions being left behind by the new world, and Ex has a deep longing for a past that he missed out on, back when the trade was celebrated. The presence of magic in The Last Phi Hunter is so in-your-face that it puts the story pretty firmly into the fantasy genre, but the horror / grimdark aspect is pretty heavy, which is why I went with dark fantasy.

Sadly, I didn’t realize dark fantasy was used a lot to describe kinda toxic romance with fantasy elements. Oops.

The Last Phi Hunter is your first published novel, but on your website you said you wrote seven novels before it. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Phi but not on anything else you’ve written?

The rise of diverse voices definitely encouraged me to write the novel. Trail Of Lightning by Rebecca Rownhouse was an inspiration, how she used Native American culture and folklore in a monster-hunter story. As a writer in general, I have my main influences but none specific to writing this particular novel.

How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on The Last Phi Hunter?

Exactly, the biggest inspirations weren’t other books as much as they were games and film. Princess Mononoke really inspired the unseen, magical world and god-spirits we see throughout Ex’s journey.

And I have to admit that I never read any of The Witcher novels, but played the games and saw the show — that definitely influenced the idea of creating the Phi Hunters Order as these esoteric tradesmen who permanently changed their bodies to gain powers.

And what about your cats, Big Face and Lil Face? How did your cats influence The Last Phi Hunter?

When I write at home I’m always on the chaise by the window, next to where they bask in the morning sun. And the minute I walk away from my laptop, one of them will sit on the keys and write a bunch of catspeak garble with their butts. I’m sure there’s a few remnants of their contributions within the pages.

Now, when not writing, you like to paint, draw, and play in a punk rock band. Given that, why did you decide not to do The Last Phi Hunter as a graphic novel or punk rock opera?

If I could draw in a style that would do it justice, I’d do that in a heartbeat. But even if I could, writing the prose would still be its first form. You just have so much more freedom when only taking text into account. But while I’m drafting a new project, I always make my own art for the story, like little sketches of the characters, maps, or cover mock ups.

As for a punk rock opera, well, dang I think I have to add that to the “drunk ideas that I might someday do” pile.

Dark fantasy novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is The Last Phi Hunter?

I wrote The Last Phi Hunter as a stand-alone, since I hate getting to the end of a book and finding a cliffhanger or feeling like I just slogged through 400 pages of set up. I wanted to tell a complete story, but also hint at a larger world. The ol “keep them wanting more.”

And I’m also the type of writer that writes in many genres and would probably get bored if I was in the same world for too long. Those other novels you mentioned before [from her website] were, in order: post-apocalyptic alt-history, Grimdark science fantasy, urban fantasy, epic gaslamp, epic YA diesel punk, solarpunk romance, cyberpunk space western…

That being said, if there is enough reader demand, then I’d love to write another story in the same world. I grew really attached to Ex and the other characters, and already know exactly what’s in store for him next…

Earlier I asked if The Last Phi Hunter had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Phi could be adapted into a movie, a show, or a game?

I daydream about my stories being adapted into film or games all the time. I’m very cinematic when I write, thanks to my background in video production and editing. Often I’ll put on a playlist and vibe out to visions of a set piece or action sequence or character moment and that’s my excuse for working for the day.

I think The Last Phi Hunter would adapt best to film, even better if it’s in animated or anime form. Like Blue Eyed Samurai or Arcane.

But yeah, the shorter format of a movie would probably work best since it’s a pretty contained story. We aren’t jumping around to all that many POVs which you need in order to carry a TV series for however many hours.

So, if someone wanted to adapt The Last Phi Hunter into a movie, who would you want them to cast as Ex, Arinya, and the other main characters?

Ah I’m terrible at this since I never know any celebrities names. But it would be important for me for the studio to cast majority Southeast Asian actors as the Suyoramese characters. I’d also want them to get a real big ass wolf to play the Hound, not some whack CG abomination. Never looks right. And that’s also another reason I think animated is the way to go.

And what if someone wanted to adapt The Last Phi Hunter into a game, what kind of game should it be and who should make it?

For a straight up story-heavy action adventure, I would go with Arkane studios, since Harvey [Smith] is my homeboy and I really got to see their talent and passion firsthand when I was working on trailers for the Dishonored and Prey series. Their system design and visual storytelling is top-notch.

But I could also see an open world RPG where you make your own hunter, with NPC cameos from the characters in the novel.

It would also be super cool to develop a TTRPG game system or expansion set in the Kingdom of Suyoram. I’d 100% be down for that. Studios, don’t all come knocking at once.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Last Phi Hunter?

I’m doing a bunch of events this year! More details on my website. And if you see me in the wild, ask for your official Phi Hunters Order stamp. I have a bunch of cool swag that I want to give out to readers.

Salinee Goldenberg The Last Phi Hunter

Finally, if someone enjoys The Last Phi Hunter, what silkpunk / dark fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?

Ooo well, it’s kinda funny because I haven’t read all that much lately, outside of the ones everyone knows about like Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga or Iron Widow by Xiran Zhao.

I’ve been on a pretty intense sci-fi kick. I thought 36 Streets by T.R. Napper was pretty neat- cyberpunk noir set in a dystopian Vietnam, but be warned, it’s really dark.

There’s a ton of books by Asian writers in my TBR though, like The Jinn-Bot Of Shantiport by Samit Basu, The Saint Of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera, Road To Ruin by Hana Lee, etc., etc. If you get to them before I do, lmk how awesome they are.



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