Monday, September 5, 2011

Huntress by Malinda Lo

I love fantasy, especially an area of fantasy I like to think of as 'awesome kick-butt heroines fantasy,' populated by writers such as Tamora Pierce, Kristin Cashore, Sherwood Smith, Phillip Pullman, Robin McKinley, and so many others.  With the publication of her first novel, Ash, in 2009, I added Malinda Lo to that mental list.  But Malinda Lo's writings bring another important factor to the table in the world of fantasy writing: some diversity.  As I said, I love fantasy; it has always been and will always be one of my favorite sub-genres.  However, I must say that it is, traditionally, a rather white-washed and heteronormative area of fiction.  Inspired by this reality, Lo and fellow young adult author Cindy Pon (Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix) banded together this year to address the continued lack of diversity in young adult fiction by creating the website and book tour "Diversity in YA," a celebration of diverse stories in the YA fiction world.    

However, Malinda Lo's newest novel Huntress is a gorgeous addition to young adult fantasy not simply because it brings variety; it is a great new fantasy because it is a excellent story with wonderful characters, lovely bittersweet romance, and a beautifully developed world.  Set in the same universe as Ash but centuries earlier, the human kingdom of Huntress is deeply out of balance; the sun has disappeared from the sky, destroying crops and trapping the land in a permanent chilly dullness.  Meanwhile, the bodies of strange creatures are appearing along the human nation's borders.  The king has received a summons from the Fairy Queen-the first in recent memory.  The Council at the Academy of Sages seeks answers and seems to have found a some in the confusing visions of Taisin, a young sage in training.  

Taisin has seen that both she and her classmate Kaede must travel with the king's son to visit the Fairy Queen in her capital city of Tanlili.  But Taisin hasn't told the council everything : although she has never really interacted with Kaede before, Taisin knows that her visions involving the other girl leave her feeling an intense combination of love and despair.  Meanwhile Kaede, who possesses no apparent otherworldly gifts and remains at the Academy only due to her father's political power, chooses to accept this quest out of a desperate need for escape--from her parents' expectations and from a proposed marriage to a nobleman she has never met.  These very different young women do not know what to expect from the strange journey--or from each other.  

From the opening pages, Lo immerses the reader in the story's world and characters.  The world she's crafted is beautifully fleshed out with the exposition woven gradually into the plot so that it enhances the story instead of weighing it down.   As other writers have drawn on historical cultures such as medieval Europe to enrich their invented worlds, Lo has infused her world with aspects of Asian cultures, especially Chinese culture.  The I Ching structures much of the sage studies and selections from that text begin each section of the novel;  Lo also offers a pronunciation guide for the characters' names at the beginning of the book.  By drawing on these less utilized cultures to craft her imagined world, Lo creates a refreshingly unique and beautiful setting for her romantic adventure. 

The third-person narration shifts its focus between characters, giving the reader a glimpse into most of the main characters' minds and perspectives.  The plot is great adventure fraught with creepy dangers.  But the highlight of the novel is definitely the wonderfully complex relationship between Taisin and Kaede.  The slowly growing attraction and emotional connection between the two young women creates a wonderful tension.  Although their romance might be considered bittersweet, I found it to be achingly lovely and very satisfying to follow.  Both Taisin and Kaede remain true to their established personalities throughout the story and their relationship allows each woman to find greater self-knowledge.  

My only quibble with this otherwise lovely novel is that it suffers from what I think of as 'double climax syndrome.'  The plot reaches its exciting and intense climatic point in a significant confrontation scene that manages to be both action-packed and contemplative; this first climax pulls together thematic concerns and the major plot very well.  But then afterwards there is a strange sort of second climatic point in a smaller confrontation and while I could understand some of the thematic significance for this second climax, it seemed unnecessary; the story had already reached its high point and this little side adventure feels a bit tacked on.  

However, overall, I found Huntress to be a lyrically written and compulsively readable adventure and romance.  I would highly recommend it both to fans of Malinda Lo's first novel, Ash, and to fans of other female-focussed fantasy adventures such as those written by Tamora Pierce or Kristin Cashore.      

4/5 STARS 

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