Huntress is a prequel to Malinda Lo’s debut novel, Ash, though the two books can stand independently. Huntress takes place several centuries earlier, in a time when the country’s culture was more analogous to that of feudal China.
In the past few years, a shift in the weather has resulted in famine. Then the Fairy Queen, who has long been out of contact with humans, issues a surprising invitation to her city, Taninli. The King and the sages are sure the timing is no coincidence, and put together a delegation. Among those chosen to undertake this hazardous journey are Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls growing up in the sages’ Academy.
Along the way, the girls begin to fall in love. There’s no stigma attached to being a lesbian in the world of the novel, but other obstacles loom. Kaede is high-born and her father plans a political marriage for her. Taisin has planned all her life to become a sage, and sages are required to be celibate. The theme of forbidden love is picked up in a secondary couple, too, and in a folktale told around the travelers’ campfire. Seen from a certain angle, even the backstory of the villain’s origin is an extension of the theme of “love thwarted by an accident of birth.”
The best thing about Huntress is that nothing in it is a cop-out. Anytime there’s the possibility of an easy way out, that’s not where Lo takes the story. No one ever hands Kaede and Taisin a convenient way to have everything they want without sacrifice. This holds true, too, for the struggle against the supernatural force that threatens the land. The threats cannot be handily dehumanized. Killing never becomes easy. This lack of cop-outs makes Huntress stand out against a number of books that foreshadow difficult choices but don’t follow through; against any book where the bad guys are made of cardboard; and even against Ash, where the solution was something of a loophole.
Don’t think, though, that this is a depressing book. Huntress is filled with noble characters, beautiful imagery, and selfless love; and left me feeling uplifted after I finished it.
At the end, we also see the implied founding of the King’s Huntress position that Kaisa, from Ash, will later hold.
Lo’s prose feels more assured this time around. It’s less ornamented than that of Ash, but also more seamless. There are fewer passages that jump out as “Here be pretty words!” — because it all flows together as a whole, elegant in an understated way. I usually read quickly but slowed down for Huntress, so I could “hear” the words spoken in my head.
The only aspect of the prose that seems flawed is the occasional head-hopping, and I can’t even say for sure that it’s a mistake. In the early chapters, it’s distracting. Later, the reader grows accustomed to it. Then, when the characters reach Taninli and walk out into the sunshine, Lo uses the POV-jumping to show us each character’s initial reaction in a single paragraph. It works perfectly, serving both to illuminate differences between the characters and to give the reader a multisensory experience. I have to wonder if Lo seeded the head-hopping early in the novel so it wouldn’t jar us when she did it purposefully here.
My metaphorical hat is off to Malinda Lo for this bittersweet tale of love, heroism, sacrifice, and coming-of-age. (And also for proving to jaded old me that I can still enjoy the quest structure if other elements of the story are fresh.) I highly recommend Huntress.