The Plot: The sun and the seasons have disappeared. The Fairy Queen summons the human king to visit him. The King, suspicious in part because many believe fairies to be a myth, sends his son Con instead. Taisin, a talented student from the Academy of Sages is chosen to go along, as is her fellow student, the less magically talented Kaede. Only three guards will accompany them as they travel north.
With each mile they travel, the devastating impact of food shortages is seen. It also becomes clear that something is happening to the boundary between the lands of fairy and human. Odd creatures are reported. The small party is attacked, both physically and mentally. Will they even be able to get to the lands of the Fairy Queen? And what waits them there?
The Good: Huntress is set a few centuries before Ash. Some of the world is familiar; other parts are new. For example, Huntress contains much stronger imagery and references to Chinese culture than I recall there being in Ash. Huntress has an Academy of Sages to train and develop young women who are magically adept. Ash had no such Academy but it did have greenwitches. I love, love, love companion books like these two that stand alone yet are part of the same world I want to visit and revisit. I particularly like how Lo visited this place in two radically different times. She also does it in such different ways; Ash was a very internal story, and Huntress is much more external and action driven.
If Ash was about recovering from grief (via a Cinderella retelling), Huntress is about love and what people will and won’t do for love and how those actions and non-actions impact people and their world. Love can be nurturing but it can also be destructive.
Taisin is in training to be a Sage. As the daughter of a farmer, she is both talented and driven to achieve. Part of being a sage requires committing to celibacy. When Taisin dreams of Kaede, dreams of being in love with her, Taisin’s reaction is “oh, no” because it means either that in the future, she will abandon her hoped for life as a sage or it will mean heartbreak for both Kaede and she because of the celibacy requirement.
Kaede is the daughter of a woman who studied to be a sage and King’s Chancellor. She has no magical talent so her future is not in the Academy. Her father hopes to arrange a political marriage. Kaede has spent her time at the Academy learning more practical things than Taisin — knife throwing, for example. Kaede wants adventure, not marriage and children. Before going on this quest, the best she could have hoped for was a political alliance being made with a woman rather than a man.
As with Ash, two women falling in love is just a typical part of the world. The tension between Kaede and Taisin, the “will they or won’t they,” is driven by their differing backgrounds and aspirations. I loved how Taisin is so afraid to reveal her feelings for Kaede because she fears what falling in love will mean for her, emotionally, as a possible sage — and what it would also mean for Kaede. Avoid love, avoid future heartbreak. Also typical in this world is women pursuing lives of adventure. Kaede is taught to throw knives by a former female member of the King’s Guard; one of the three Guards sent on the journey north is a woman. Women having lives outside the domestic sphere of marriage and children is accepted as the norm. This is not a perfect world; Taisin can become a sage only because she has talent and drive. Kaede’s options may be limited because her father uses his children to make political alliances on behalf of his king.
Huntress is more than a love story; there is a lot of action here, much more than in Ash. Kaede is the type of young woman who makes use of her free morning by learning how to shoot a bow and arrow. Taisin, learning about a local baby who is “off”, not quite normal, ignores all advice to the contrary and seeks the mother and infant. Wolves attack. And the magic — the magic, like the fairy world, is real and almost scientific. A person needs to have the talent and gift for it, but it doesn’t just happen. A person has to study; there is cause and effect and consequences to actions.
As I said earlier, Huntress has many Chinese influences. European folk and fairy tales are also present, and the two twine together seamlessly. One group of fairy folk are called the Xi, pronounced Shee, with parallels to the Sidhe. A baby may nor may not be a changeling. Ours is a multicultural world, and I love how Huntress shows how two cultures can work together in one story, one creation, one world. It’s not either/or. It’s not exclusive.
While Huntress does not retell a fairy tale, it does have fairy tale elements: a destructive dynamic between (step)mother and child, a magical mirror, a world of ice.
Because Huntress is part of the world I loved in Ash. Because Huntress is different than Ash. Because the love between Kaede and Taisin is romantic and sweet. Because the action never ends. For all of this, Huntress is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.