089 – Huntress by Malinda Lo

Purchase Huntress at Amazon.com - it's better than a lot of other shit you could be reading 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 Tanlili, 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.

The exciting adventure prequel to Malinda Lo’s highly acclaimed novel Ash is overflowing with lush Chinese influences and details inspired by the I Ching, and is filled with action and romance.
Hey, guys! We’re back, and with another generally engaging and rewarding reading experience, once again provided by Malinda Lo.

A lot of what I got excited about in Ash has carried over to Huntress, which makes sense, given that Huntress is a companion novel/prequel, with the same world, same writer, etc. So once again I almost feel like I’m being spoiled with the abundance and variety of women, and the distinct lack of lady-hate and needless Alpha Bitches. Our lead characters, Taisin and Kaede, exemplify this rather brilliantly. They are very different characters from different backgrounds, with different personalities, skill sets, and perspectives, who could very easily be set into an adversarial rivalry, and they might be, in a lesser book. Instead, they fall in love. It’s a fucking beautiful reprieve, let me tell you.

Similarly, I enjoyed the expansion of the world we initially came to know in Ash. It felt more fleshed out this time, albeit differently. We got a further in to the mechanics in Huntress – what exists, how magic works, how the fae and humans interact, what their history is, and even a small taste of politics, all of which I’ll admit I sank my teeth in to a little deeper than I did with the Ash‘s fairytales.

I mentioned in that previous review that I had a few questions along these lines, and while they did get answered – vaguely – I’m still mostly in the dark as to why the gender-power dynamics are so weirdly selective. Council of exclusive female magical elders/advisers to the king? Check. Female guards? Check. Options for women’s education? Check. Lady-lady relationships? Still pretty cool with that. Women still pressured into political marriages that only rarely provide opportunities for same-sex unions? Yeah, still doing that too. I dun get it.

Huntress‘s exploration of the world several centuries before Ash also allowed Lo to shift the setting to one more Asian-inspired, and it’s an element that I enjoyed quite a bit. Admittedly, I’m not very familiar with Chinese culture, which is, I believe, what Lo drew from, but I thought the sort of European/Chinese mash up here was particularly well-handled. Nothing felt exotified or Othered, and there was a blessed lack of fetishistic weeby over-compensation. Lo included enough pointed detail to to prevent the reader from falling in to the white-as-default assumption, but for the most part, she just allowed things to be.

Granted, I dunno about this world transforming into the generically European-medieval one we found in Ash in only a few centuries, which doesn’t seem long enough to change everything so completely, culturally, and yet very little in terms of technology, but eh. It’s not super important.

Finally, I found Huntress to be a huuuuuge improvement over Ash in terms of plot development. Again, I’m not super familiar with classic fantasy or fantasy-related tropes, but Huntress struck me as having a fairly typical plot structure, just from what I do know of the genre. It’s a quest novel: the characters are given an objective at the start, they go on a long journey fraught with setbacks, revelations, and loss, and then, you know, they fight. I enjoyed the set-up and most of the execution – it was simple, but the stakes were high, the challenge…uh, challenging, and the interpersonal conflict appropriately ~dramatic~. The pacing was miles better as well – Lo kept the story moving forward, and there was always a sense of progression, like we weren’t just wasting time walking in circles with these characters so that we could pad out the page count. At the same time, the road towards the climax provided ample opportunity for the characters and world to be developed. It’s a goddamn efficient plotline if nothing else, and for a fantasy newbie like myself, it was compelling and engaging.

Plus, sidebar: the fairy stuff was great. Lo’s fae society has remained fairly mysterious over the course of these two books, but it’s been enough to make me super-intrigued by them, and how they work inter-personally. It seems like all of the ones we’ve gotten to know as individuals have been similarly cool and aloof and very SRS FACE, and I can’t really see that working for everyone. Like, where’s the fae comedy relief? I wanna meet that person.

But. BUT BUT BUT. There were problems okay. Mostly the writing. Oh my goddddd the writing.

I think it might have actually gotten worse since Ash? Or at least, the style is completely different, so any of issues that showed up there – like the constant declaration of emotional states – can’t be chalked up to the expositional style anymore. And you know, cumulatively, the writing is not a failure. I always understood what was happening, everything was easy to visualize, and I most certainly knew where the characters stood at any given time. More than that, the settings, the characters, the culture – basically, the results of the writing, I guess you would say, all worked for me. That worked fine.

But on a line-by-line basis? Oh my god it was…augh. Seriously –

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There was a lot of awkward phrasing – names and words repeated frequently and close together enough to make me double-take and pull me right out of the story.

I think the worst part was this constant shift in perspectives, though. We head hop all the fucking time, like, within the same chapter, within the same page, within the same couple paragraphs. We swoop around, getting one character’s perspective on a thing before being unceremoniously dumped into someone else’s in the very next line. It – it felt like cheating. Like rather than having to be shown what the character thought and felt, or judge by their actions or deeds, we could just be dumped in their heads, have them narrate a few sentences about it, and then snap back to one of our two primary protagonists.

Second problem: the romance. So, weird thing – I was cool with the relationship after it was established. I liked Kaede, I liked Taisin, I thought the whole blushing shy romance thing was cute, yay they actually got to have fade-to-black sexy times in a YA book, that was cool. But I have no earthly fuckin’ idea why they liked one another so much in the first place. I know that Taisin knew that she was supposed to love Kaede because of her vision, but I don’t know what made her or Kaede shift from their initial lack of interest.

I mean, I understand that they spent loads of time together, that they went on a journey and presumably had some bonding time, but I don’t feel like I ever saw any of it. It seemed like one moment they were strangers, the next they were staring at one another longingly across the room, and then eventually giving in to that attraction. But I don’t know why they started staring longingly. It doesn’t seem like, prior to the puppy dog eyes, they ever had any sort of developing conversation or even got the chance to show their personalities to one another, so what the hell, man?

The thing I really liked about Kaisa and Ash in Ash was that they spent time together actively trying to get to know one another. Walking, talking, hanging out, discussing their lives – I could see how their initial attraction developed into romance. Huntress completely lacked that connection for me, and it was especially awkward given that Kaede and Taisin are meant to be so deeply in love.

Speaking of weird group dynamics – okay, I liked Con, but I found the way the story treated him, as a royal figure, completely unbelievable. Like, THIS IS THE HEIR TO YOUR THRONE. HOW ARE YOU GOING TO LET HIM LIKE WANDER AROUND AT NIGHT AND SHIT IN A DANGEROUS AREA COMPLETELY UNGUARDED. How do you not feel even vaguely obligated to protect him? It was a strange absence – Kaede especially always seemed to be concerned for Con as a friend, but his status and the importance of his survival as prince only ever seemed to come up when it was relevant in relation to the fae. The rest of the time, I think Taisin and Kaede just kinda forgot. Which is weird, because, again, PRINCE. They are usually pretty important.

Also, Elowen.

Yeah I couldn’t help it.

I thought we might get more out of her in the brief moments Taisin got to spend in her head, experiencing her authentic emotions without mind games or manipulation, but we got like what? one of those scenes before Elowen got wise and started using it to her advantage? Then there was like nothing after that. The rest of her context and character development came in the form of exposition and villain monologues, which was really disappointing. There were hints here and there, but I was hoping we might be given more of an insight into her beyond just the power-mad heir schtick. Not so much.

I did appreciate that her death had weight though, if not because we were familiar with the character, then because her death meant something to Kaede. It wasn’t just “ding-dong the witch is dead”, it was “holy crap, I killed someone, and that has changed me forever”. I actually really liked that death was taken seriously in general. It wasn’t hack-n-slash, there were no faceless hordes of orcs to stab ’til we’re numb – every life that was taken affected the characters in a big way.

Last thing: the ending. AUGHHHH. We were doing really well with that whole plot and pacing thing right up until the last twenty pages. The villain had been defeated, you think the last bit is just going to be wrap-up and hint at the future for this world and our protagonists, and then BAM – a last-minute crisis comes out of nowhere, completely sucks up the last of our precious page count, accomplishes basically nothing, and leaves us with an abrupt, unsatisfying ending. It felt like the last five to ten pages had just been lopped off.

Disappointttttt. I mean, I’m not looking for a bunnies-and-sunshine happy ending, I don’t need Con and Shae or Taisin and Kaede to ride happily into the sunset (although ngl, I kinda wanted that), but I hate feeling like I’m just left hanging. I wanted to know where Kaede found her place, what the political ramifications were for this new development in fae-human relations. I wanted to see how endlessly optimistic Con handled his relationship with Shae, and if Taisin ever got any of the answers she needed from her teachers. I wanted some sort of sense of closure, and I feel like that’s something Huntress lacks completely. It was not a great note to end on.

So yeah, sketchy writing, flimsy romance, disappointing ending, BUT for all of those issues, I still enjoyed the shit out of reading Huntress, ngl. The problems knock it down a star or two, but they wouldn’t keep me from recommending it. There’s a lot here and in Ash that Lo does right, and that I’d like to see more of in YA. I’m still pretty firmly on the Yay Malinda Lo train, and I’m looking forward to picking up Adaptation and Inheritance at some point in the near future, to see what she does with sci-fi.

three stars

I wouldn’t be averse to another Huntress novel though. Just saying.


3 Responses

  1. Deborah Avila

    March 31, 2015 4:01 pm, Reply

    It looks like Lo just spent half of the book wandering around the Wood and the characters, and then rushed the ending, putting some crappy story in a desperately way. Like if the Editor said something like “C’mon, Lo, go fast with that crap, just put any ending and give this shit to us”.
    I really was hoping for that kind of “love happy ending”. I know, it’s bullshit, but I wanted that, ok? haha

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