Huntress / Malinda Lo
Little Brown and Company, 2011
If you could change your fate…would you?
Argh, wait. Wrong story.
At its heart, all the same, Malinda Lo’s Huntress is a beautifully written, sometimes strangely distant story that tackles fate, free will, and the joy of a journey.
Two girls study at The Academy—a wrought-iron centre of learning at the edge of The Kingdom. We meet them in alternate POV chapters. The first, Taisin, is a farmer’s daughter, and so skilled at Sage craft—the spiritual/quasi magical order at the heart of the Academy’s learning—that she is considered the most talented of her generation. Taisin cares little for that. She has just wanted to be a Sage her whole life, and is prepared to take the necessary vows to do so. These vows include celibacy. Kaede, the daughter of the King’s Chancellor, has always struggled with the rituals of the Academy. She is too wilful; too fierce, and too protective of herself, to be any other way. She feels rather lost in the Academy as she works through her last year, knowing that her father will marry her off for political gain one way or another, and that she is running out of time. (There hasn’t, a friend reminds her early on the novel, been a political union between two women in recent memory).
The Kingdom, meanwhile, is falling to pieces around them. Crops wither, people starve, and a strange, lingering winter encroaches upon the land. When the King receives an envoy from the long-closed off fairy realm of Taninli, with possible clues to the end of this winter, Taisin also experiences the clearest vision of her life: she will be going somewhere far, and icy, and strange. Kaede will be going with her. And Taisin is in love with her.
How do you look someone in the eye when you know you’re meant to fall in love with them, but haven’t yet? Huntress is very delicate as it examines this question, and its companion themes of whether love compromises or aids duty. Taisin’s chapters are full of quiet frustration and questions and confusion, while Kaede—who spends much of the book blessedly unaware of her companion’s anguish—learns skills out in the wilderness with a few friends that she could not have picked up in her father’s home or her old school. I loved the strength—the capability—of both these girls. It shows early and never falters, as the two of them embark on one of the better-written quest narratives I’ve read. There is inclement weather; changeling babies; flirting and jealousy and daggers and stunningly well handled exposition. By the end of the road, you feel like you know every character well, but never like that knowledge has thrown at you. Taninli (which, along with The Wood, will be familiar to readers of Ash, Lo’s debut novel that is set in this world some centuries later) is as fascinating, imbued with Tír na nÓg allusions as much as the Academy and Kaede’s city of Cathair are imbued with Chinese folklore and philosophy. The two women themselves, with their non-romantic Prince Companion and bantering coterie of guards, feel like a link between these two different scaffolds. I think the best example of this fusion is in the name of the fairy folk themselves: Xi—which, at least phonetically, reads as a Chinese transliteration of sidhe.
My linguistic ramblings are digression, however. It’s easy to find something to love in Huntress. I found myself looking rather sidelong at the love-story between Kaede and Taisin, no matter how much I love simple queer representation in fiction (not a spoiler! Predestination!) precisely because it was hard to separate myself out from Taisin’s initial near-panic about it. But what does develop between the near-Sage and growing-Warrior is still beautiful, often humorous, and real. The warmth and strength of this relationship lingers with you, just under your skin, and I found that I adored it. The ending (oh god, that ending) feels right—though I dare not spoil it, and people may disagree with me.
As strong as the character development is, the physical world-building (with the exception of the Academy, Wood, and Taninli) is less well done. The map at the beginning does not make The Kingdom’s geography. The path of Taisin and Kaede’s quest, for all the place names and descriptions of taverns, and snow and flowers and hills, never really feels set. I had a similar problem with Ash when I read it, though less so, since Ash was a retelling of Cinderella and often in more ephemeral, fae places than Huntress, for all its otherworldly ending. As a quest story, it would have been good to see where the characters were going, along with what was happening inside their heads. This feeling of disconnect was the only thing that stopped me from being utterly infatuated with the novel.