Monday, May 23, 2011

YA Book Review: Huntress by Malinda Lo

Her award-winning first novel, Ash, was widely (and deservedly) recommended as a teen fantasy. However, her second book, Huntress, is at least twice as good, and fixes many of the problems of Ash.

Close up on the cover art of Huntress (illustrated by Alison Impey)

The people are suffering from famine and random wandering fay-monsters, and two girls (Kaede and Taisin) are sent on a quest to find the Fairy Queen and ask for help with the weather. Rather than a Celtic-Cinderella story, Huntress is a mix of English and Asian fairytales. I fully expect it to be nominated for as many awards as Ash was, and probably win a fair few of them.

While we are still told what the the two girls are feeling, and most of their characters are described, rather than shown (and a little too 'stock characterish', the world building is much deeper and more consistent and there are more secondary characters - which Lo has a talent for bringing to life. The people they travel with, and meet along the way, bring life and depth to the story as well as the weight of believability. There's a much wider cast of secondary characters in Huntress, which was where Ash fell down a bit, as the internal monologues of the heroines tend to be a bit... impersonal. (Both girls start to come into their own towards the end though, and Kaede becomes quite real and heroic. Also hand-wringingly conscience wracked!). 

Huntress by Malinda Lo
What is the actual story, you ask? Well, the King's a selfish man, his kingdom's suffering from endless wintery weather and strange creatures are wandering out of the forest. Meanwhile, the Sages (an order of mystics) have visions, and an invitation from the almost-legendary fairy queen arrives for the king. And everyone assumes these events must be connected (which they are, luckily!), and so can't risk ignoring her invitation. Of course, the situation is far too unstable for the King to go (he says), so he sends his son, along with two seventeen year old girls training to be Sages, because the visions say so.

 One girl is Kaede, a noble's daughter, who's happier grubbing in the garden than studying and has no talent for being a Sage. The other is Taisin, an incredibly gifted girl who has a vision of Kaede, and then spends the rest of the book angsting about whether to fall in love, or angsting about how they had to part soon because they had no future (okay, that wasn't really fair - she's a nice, quiet girl who's typically intellectual and absorbed in her studies).

Kaede's father is determined she should marry for (his) political gain. Kaede is pretty sure she only likes women, and isn't really speaking to her father (for context; loving women isn't bad, it's just there isn't likely to be a chance of her making an alliance with another woman. Amusingly, her mother accused her of not being open minded, when trying to persuade her to agree to the marriage).

Prince Con, who's a close friend of Kaede's brothers and one of the best characters in the book - a noble, sensible brotherly supporting character, who jokes with Kaede and helps protect the girls, and three guards, none of whom actually make it to the river that marks the border of Xi territory, set off to answer the invitation. Along the way, we get a fair bit of teenage personal development time, lots of inevitable romance foreshadowing, and a few monsters, a wolf attack, ghosts and a mystery wisewoman. Once the three survivors reach the land of the Xi, they get escorted to the fairy court by the Hunter and his hunt, and the queen explains that actually, she needs one of them to go kill someone for her...

Rather than forcing the story into a preset Cinderella mold, it follows a traditional coming of age, quest storyline. The 'vision' from Taisin (peasant but brilliant Sage to be) stuck in my teeth - it was an awkward way to both force 'inevitable but doomed love affair' onto the story (which was already obvious - they were bound to fall in love, and equally, Kaede was supposed to marry for politics while Taisin was going to be a celibate Sage), and an equally awkward pretext for taking Kaede along on the quest. The tacked on 'go find the Unicorn and complete the circle of life' bit at the end felt a bit forced too, with its overly laboured 'everything has a consequence' and as a way of forgiving Kaede for her imagined guilt (I actually thought it was a lead in to a sequel, which would have been interesting and epic, and then suddenly it was over, with a helping of Healing Wisdom). On the other hand, I've read so much that I can usually predict the ending halfway through most books and films now, when other people watching with me can't, so it may only be forced to me, because I also analyse what I'm reading ('why did the author add this? how does it affect the plot? Does anyone change? Is it just for fun?')

The rest of it was pretty good, though. The level of description is toned down a bit from Ash, which I don't mind - pretty prose is charming, but a real story is better. There's plenty of scope for several sequels, especially considering how lightly many aspects of the people and magics were skimmed, but it does explain how the role of Huntress was established for Ash (or rather, it implies it, in a pleasingly subtle way, that assumes readers don't need the obvious beaten into their heads). Actually, considering how little of the world we saw in Ash, and the fact that most of Huntress' storyline takes place wandering around in the countryside, woods and lands of the Xi (elves), they could almost be occurring at the same time, rather than generations apart. Certainly, it doesn't matter what order you read the books in, although Huntress is meant to be the prequel to Ash, rather than a sequel.

The elves are basically Tolkienesque high elves, complete with glamour-like appearance and inscrutability. But they have touches of - well, humanity. Such as displays of real emotion and personality, and the fact they eat after all was quite funny and perception changing - they ate when the group is asleep!

Eventually the two girls give up and fall happily into bed with each other (not that Kaede was really resisting!) and then they troop off to save the world from the power-crazy daughter of the Queen. Which is dramatic and costs them all a great deal of pain and trouble, but is overall quite straightforward. And then they return, deal with a few more bits of drama - or rather, Kaede does - and then head home.

There's also a rather nice map inside the cover by John Stevenson, showing the not-so-enormous journey and the very literal naming of the geography!

(Inside back cover) They start at The Academy, on an island down on the bottom of the left hand page, then basically go straight up...

(Inside front cover)...after meeting the Xi in the Northerness, they head across to Elowen's Island via the Glacier, then back the way they came.

The romance between the girls is left undecided, but it seems pretty clear that Taisin is destined and determined to be a Sage, and much as she loves Kaede, she believes the emotions and physical longing is too distracting (hence the original celibacy rule). 

As in Ash, the fact that the two girls fall in love is considered quite normal, just statistically rare. Reading age is definitely young adult, but it is not explicit, so I'd happily hand this to a bright ten year old. On the other hand, it is well written enough, and doesn't gloss over the sex side enough, that adults will appreciate it too - but generally, this is a book for mid-late teens.

Do I recommend this book? 

Further Reading

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