Summertime Mini Review #11
Beautifully stark, black and white poetry. That was my initial impression of Malinda Lo’s Huntress. Yet with all the graceful writing, Huntress still gives us the tropes we want in YA fantasy: the academy of wizards (female sages in this case); kings and chancellors; old crones; fairy lands; adventurers on a perilous and mysterious quest. There are even subtle nods to adult themes to be found. For example, the Mistress of the Academy is named Maire Morighan which I chose to take as an homage to King Arthur’s Morgaine LeFey. Also, the political and economic situation described in the fictional land is very reminiscent of current North Korea as much as it is of Feudal Japan. Issues of duty and death are handled with sensitivity and realism.
Huntress is touted as a Young Adult novel and it reads as a perfectly good example of one – better, in fact, than many claiming the same niche. But The Worm thinks this one plays pretty damn well to the grown ups, too. (Harry Potter anybody? Lord of the Rings? Freaking Twilight? – I apologize to Ms. Lo for even mentioning Twilight in the same review.)
Lo lends a careful to balance to this fantasy tale. She demonstrates how an author can squeeze characterization, plot points, action, and exposition into a short scene that is heavy on import but light on cheese. During an early scene one of our protagonists, Kaede, is discussing her future with a mentor. During the exchange she is tossing knives at a target on a windswept beach. As the mentor helps Kaede, we see the action of the blades (when they hit and when they miss); we learn of the theme of the book (choice, free will, destiny); we get a little foreshadowing (the iron blade); and we feel the beginnings of a true affinity for these characters. In lesser hands, this scene and all it needed to convey would have been long-winded, dry, and left nothing interesting to track during the conversation. Worse, it could have become a tedious lecture followed by a schmaltzy back-slapping hug. Or even worse yet, the tousling of Kadae’s hair after the mentor solved all her problems. But the author is having none of that. Thank you, Malinda Lo. Young Adult readers are not stupid – and you do not treat them that way.
The Worm would be totally remiss not to give Lo additional props for avoiding so many of my lesbian fiction cliche gripes! 1) She defines each of her female protagonists through attitude, action, setting, and voice. She does not rely on a difference in hair color or clothing to accomplish this. There is work in developing these young women and it shines through. 2) Narrative trumps contrived sexual set pieces every time. 3) Male characters are given depth and critical roles to play. 4) Best of all, the romance lends angsty anticipation to the story without compromising the actual plot. Good Lord, I think Lo is onto something here!
What makes this fantasy tale stand out from so many others (aside from the sweetly PG lesbian relationship) is the writing style. It is delicate and feminine, without being blatantly feminist. Even though we have adventurers on a quest and evil spirits and swords and magic – it is certainly written in more a fairy tale style than in that of your typical swords and sorcerers book. It is not the crushing, blunt force badass crusade we have become accustomed to. This book has art and fluidity to it. It is more waterdance than fog of war.
On an unsexy technical note, Lo’s book is gorgeously formatted for the e-reader. My Kindle loved it almost as much as I did. Beautiful, illuminated lettering to herald each chapter (very fairy tale); and it is spectacularly lacking in typos. Somebody treated this conversion with care and I cannot possibly thank that individual enough. Respect for the e-book!!! Thank you, thank you!
Best sequence: the melding of Taisin with Elowen. Coolest set piece: the arrival of the Fairy Hunt on the shores of the Nir. This is a delightfully nuanced, delicately rendered look at a world of stark beauty and fantastic self-discovery. Ice queens, spritely hummingbirds, albino horsemen, and a cryptic old crone make it a lot of fun. Get this book in a paperback or hardcover – it is one you will want to share.