Huntress by Malinda Lo
I really loved Ash, but I was somewhat slow to pick up Huntress, Lo’s sophomore outing. It was somewhere between forgetting about it—the premise feels more traditional fantasy than the hook of “queer retelling of Cinderella”, so it tended to get lost the mental filing cabinet—and wanting to save it for the right moment. The right moment arrived, and my local library here at school came through admirably. (I always feel like my two public library systems are competing with each other, so I keep a very close eye on the pros and cons of each.)
Huntress, set in Ash’s distant past, tells the story of Taisin and Kaede, two students at the Academy, the training ground for sages. Commoner Taisin is a prodigy; Chancellor’s daughter Kaede doesn’t have a magical bone in her body. Winter has persisted in their Kingdom for years, and the arrival of an invitation from the Fairy Queen for the King seems their greatest hope at solving this crisis. Upon consulting the oracle stones, Prince Con, Taisin, and Kaede are selected to answer the Fairy Queen’s summons. The journey will be fraught with dangers—even, and especially, for Taisin and Kaede’s hearts.
The first thing that a reader of Ash will notice is that Huntress is much more influenced by Chinese culture—in fact, it’s this interesting blend of Chinese and Irish influences that I quite like. (The comparisons and contrasts have always interested me, to be totally honest.) The cover flap states that it’s heavily based on the I Ching, which is evident in the presence of The Book of Changes (which the I Ching is alternately known as), the text that Academy students study. The characters are unequivocally Asian, which I thoroughly appreciate, and there are little touches here and there that show how this fantasy world is differently from a fantasy world based on, say, 1700s Europe, as Ash was. There are hints about how this society ultimately evolves into that society, which I thoroughly enjoyed. (Oddly, the fairies seemed defanged here; I really enjoyed the actual threat they posed in Ash, but they’re fundamentally decent here.) But for all this variety, I found the world of Huntress very standard for fantasy. I think that impression may have been influenced by the plot, which is much more standard than the plot of Ash.
I hate to keep comparing it to Ash, but I feel the comparisons are inevitable. In Ash, the story is, more or less, about Ash’s internal life; her conflict affects her own fate, not the fate of the world. Here, the conflict is bigger. If Taisin and Kaede fail in their quest, then the world will turn to, well, ash. It’s a fairly straight forward quest narrative that’s only made complex by the internal lives of the characters. However, I did love how it ended and thoroughly look forward to reading “The Fox”, a short story set after the events of Huntress. The romance between the two characters is, essentially, a subplot, although I quite enjoyed it; Kaede’s passion for Taisin is sweet, organic, and warm. I was a little concerned by Taisin’s part in the relationship, however–the novel opens with her having a vision of an event that occurs late in the novel, complete with her feelings for Kaede. Taisin angsts over this (sages take a vow of celibacy), but it gave the romance a destined feeling that I didn’t care for. It doesn’t invalidate the romance, especially from Kaede’s perspective (she never learns that Taisin knows they end up together), but that foreknowledge on Taisin’s part makes it feel less organic.
While Ash took place entirely from Ash’s perspective, Huntress bounces from perspective to perspective haphazardly. At first, I thought Lo was going to use alternating viewpoint chapters, but she doesn’t. The perspective hopping is, to be honest, a little distracting; I had to finish the book to realize where the main character focus should lie. It’s an interesting idea that’s used to serve a point—after all, there can only be one Huntress, so jumping around keeps us from pointing to one character as the founder of the title. But it isn’t executed very well. Otherwise, the writing style is efficient more than anything else, allowing us to focus on the characters, which keeps the story from feeling as thin as it is (the bulk of the novel concerns their journey to the Fairy Queen). I really enjoyed Taisin and Kaede as characters; Taisin’s love for her chosen path conflicts with her growing love for Kaede, and Kaede is content to just let it happen. Queer relationships (specifically lesbian relationships) are presented as uncommon but perfectly acceptable here, just as they are in Ash, so the main conflict is Taisin’s impending celibacy (well, there’s an image for you) rather than anything else. Ultimately, it’s not as good as Ash, but it’s a perfectly good piece of young adult queer fantasy, which we’re certainly in short supply of.
Bottom line: Huntress, for all its Chinese influence, is much more standard fantasy fare than Ash, with the world in danger and its protagonists out on a quest to save it. Ultimately, it’s not as good as Ash, but it’s a perfectly good piece of young adult queer fantasy, which we’re certainly in short supply of.
I rented this book from the public library.