Why I Read It: I rather enjoyed Malinda Lo’s debut, Ash, so you didn’t have to twist my arm in regards to getting and reading the sequel, Huntress. It barely lost the September Alphabet Soup poll, so I figured now was as good as time as any to give it a go.
The premise: ganked from the author’s website: Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.
To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Taninli, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay-ish. I really don’t spoil anything that’s not revealed in the prologue, but if you’re spoiler-phobic, it may be best to skip to “My Rating.” Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: The first thing to note is this: while it takes place in the same world as Ash, it’s not a sequel. It’s not even a prequel, and I’m not even sure you can call it a companion novel. I say this because it takes place so EARLY in the history of Ash‘s world that’s very quite, quite different, so whether or not you’ve read Ash makes no difference. Hell, I barely remembered much of Ash except the broad strokes, and I was fine.
I think. Call me slow, but it took me a while to realize the title that Con said he needed to figure out for Kaede would become Huntress (the title of the book, yo), which is the same title that years, generations later, Ash’s true love holds. So that was nifty. And I know the Fae (or the Xi, as they’re called here) are also a linking factor between the books, and I couldn’t remember for the life of me if Kaede’s and Taisin’s tale was one of those told to Ash or remembered by Ash in Malinda Lo’s debut. I don’t think it makes much difference, mind you, but it does enrich the book for those who’ve read Ash, if I’m right about that particular connection.
Beyond that, whereas Ash was re-telling the Cinderella fairy tale, Huntress is a straight-up fantasy. I’ve read that it is “lush with Chinese influences and details inspired by the I Ching” (see Lo’s website for that quote), but honestly, without the cover art guiding me, I missed them. Well, maybe not the Chinese influences (though I think those could’ve been stronger), but rather the details of the I Ching, which I know nothing about, so Lo could’ve hit me with a hammer of those details, and I would be completely unaware.
I say this so that you know I’m not the best judge of how well (or not) these influences are portrayed. There are things I rather liked about the world-building that I suspect come from those influences/details, like the death-watch, but for the most part, I’m ignorant, and don’t feel qualified to judge those particular merits. Maybe if I were more familiar, I would’ve enjoyed the book more.
Oh, right: this book didn’t do much for me.
There’s a couple of reasons for that: the first was Lo’s maddening use of omniscient POV, which means that there’s a god-like “narrator” who can see any character’s thoughts at any time and dips in and out of those thoughts, happy as you please. Unfortunately, Lo’s use of omniscient POV actually feels like sloppy head-hopping, which was unfortunate, because I like being grounded in whatever POV I’m in (which is why I like first person and limited third so well), and with Lo slipping in and out of any character’s head, I was never sure who’s POV I was given any time I started a new chapter or section. The head-hopping also made for sloppy action scenes, making it difficult for me to really visualize what was going on.
And it’s not that I hate omniscient. Because I don’t. Sure, I think one of the worst cases I’ve ever read of bad omniscient POV is the classic Dune by Frank Herbert, but one of the best and most moving uses is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. No, I can’t tell you why Russell’s use is superior to Lo’s or even Herbert’s, because it’s been a while since I’ve read Russell and Herbert, and I don’t have the memory capacity to point out that magic difference. However, if someone wanted to make a study of the omniscient POV to figure out what works and what doesn’t, there you go: I’ve given you the best and the worst (in my memory), so that’s a starting point, right?
Lo’s wasn’t the worst, though I was very tempted to say “forget it,” and put the book aside for that reason alone. I never could connect to the characters, and the POV is largely to blame for this.
But the other reason this book didn’t work for me was that I didn’t buy the romance. And not because it’s a same-sex romance either (which we’ll get to talk a lot about for our book club discussion of Ammonite), but because of prophecy.
Taisin, in the prologue, sees Kaede leaving and Taisin, in this vision, is completely and totally in love with Kaede and fears her leaving. Great. Unfortunately, we now have the self-fulfilling prophecy and it begs the question: if Taisin had never experienced her vision, would she still have fallen in love with Kaede? Because of her vision, she didn’t act like herself about Kaede, which brought potentially more of Kaede’s attention to her than there might’ve been otherwise, and Taisin was so focused on her path of becoming a sage that I think, without the prophecy, love would’ve been harder to come by.
If Lo had cut out the prophecy, or at least, only given it to us as Kaede initially heard it, in the Council Room with it being obvious Taisin was holding something back, then the relationship might’ve been more interesting and believable, because we could’ve seen the women fall in love with each other naturally, not because one was influenced by a vision.
Don’t get me wrong: there are some wonderfully sweet moments between them as their relationship blooms. And the end is quite poignant due to their decisions about their futures: Lo doesn’t provide a happily-ever-after ending, which I applaud her for. Oh, someone finds their happily-ever-after (it’s implied), but it’s not the two main girls. Quite an interesting move, but a mature one. YA Romance never really hints that teenaged love (technically, it’s not right to call these girls teenagers, given the period this world is modeled after) is fleeting; YA Romance always promises FOREVER but rarely deals with heartbreak or the parting of ways in a believable or adult fashion. Lo does a great job here, so even though I had a little trouble rooting for the girls as a couple (again, why were they attracted to each other?), I do applaud her for how she resolved their romance. It had a beginning, middle, and an end, and the story felt complete despite that particular ending.
But I did keep getting confused about the Fairy-like Xi. On page 244, Kaede breaks two rules of entering the fairy realm. Granted, every author’s fairy realm is his or her own creation, and they create their OWN rules, but it was so obvious and blatant to those of us who know these are rules NOT TO BREAK in standard fairy lore that I rather wish Lo hadn’t used the instances, so that I didn’t feel like I was getting set up for some great betrayal later down the road.
The rules broken: Kaede eats fairy food, and then she thanks the fairies (Xi) for said food. When she says, “Thank you,” we get this response:
The corners of his mouth twitched.
Why add that if this is a fairy world where eating fairy food and thanking them is a no-no? I seriously thought that somehow, Kaede would never get to leave this realm, and that’s clearly not the case. And believe me, this is not me being some anal purist about fairy myth; but even teen readers who are fans of the genre will have read books involving that fae and these two moments may raise expectations that are never fulfilled.
My Rating: 5 – It’s a Gamble
I was pretty dissatisfied with this book, and the only thing that kept me reading was the fact it was a YA and a fast read. And Lo’s world-building is interesting. I liked the magic of the world, the peril it was in due to the constant cloud cover and bad weather, I liked the very simple fact that homosexuality was the norm and therefore not a source of conflict, which allows the reader to focus on the natural conflict of the plot. I just wish I was behind the romance itself a little more. While I really liked the resolution of it, sometimes I felt like the only reason these two girls fell in love was because of prophecy, and let’s face it: sometimes, just knowing what the future holds means one is bound to make it happen, you know?
And the constant head-hopping, disguised as omniscient POV, drove me batty.
Still, it’s a quick read, and fans of Ash may have fun making connections between the books, as this tale takes place many generations before Ash and unlike Ash, is not a re-telling of a well-known fairy tale. I’ll keep my eye on Lo’s work in the future, but I’m feeling pretty meh about this particular installment.
Cover Commentary: The cover is gorgeous, only it doesn’t match the book at all. I’m not sure which character I’m looking at, Kaede or Taisin, and neither one of them uses a staff as a weapon, so as cool as the pose is, it’s just not right. The weather in the background is a little more accurate though, and the font matches that of Ash, which takes place in the same world. Yes, it’s a very pretty cover. It just doesn’t quite fit with the book.