I have to confess that while I remember enjoying Malinda Lo’s Ash, I remember so little of it now that it’s as if I’ve never read it. Because I remember enjoying it, I had included Huntress in my TBR, and because I couldn’t remember it, Huntress lingered in my stack… for a very long time. Until now, because (1) it’s about time I read it! and (2) it’s perfect for my Queer Asian MC square in the #AsianLitBingo, being one of the first YA books I encountered that featured characters that were both Asian and queer, with a story that didn’t revolve around either of these identities. That alone made this book quite an achievement, but I liked it for other reasons too.
Set a few hundred years before Ash, there isn’t much to connect the two other than the fact that they’re both stories from the same universe, where fairies and humans co-exist. After a war that happened long before the beginning of Huntress, humans and fairies had made a treaty and stuck mainly within their own borders. But strange, dark things are occurring on the human side, and when the king received an invitation to visit the Fairy Queen, the humans took it as a chance to save their world.
The end goal might be world-saving, but most of this book is really about the quest to see the Fairy Queen. Two teenage girls, Taisin and Kaede, are chosen to go with the king’s son and a couple of trusted guards – their numbers intentionally kept low so as to not draw attention. Taisin is a Sage in training, a good student who is showing promise in her ability to see into the future. Kaede, too, is undergoing training, but unlike Taisin she isn’t talented in the mystic arts. She doesn’t even know why she’s chosen to be part of the journey, other than Taisin had a vision that indicated she’s supposed to go with them.
What she doesn’t know: in Taisin’s vision, Taisin recognised her as someone she loved. And in Taisin’s vision, they were saying goodbye, as Kaede headed towards a dangerous, deathly journey.
Taisin is troubled by her vision, as she would have to take on a vow of celibacy to become a Sage and falling in love would get in the way of that, and because she was afraid of the loss she might feel when the parting in her vision occurs. She tries very hard not to get close to Kaede because of this, but this only makes Kaede more curious about her, and the two end up falling for each other anyway.
I think that some readers may think that this book is too slow, especially if used to the kinds of YA fantasy being published now, but I appreciated the slower pace. I liked the way the romance between Taisin and Kaede played out, and even how the story ended – it isn’t quite happy, but based on their characters and what they wanted for in their own lives, it is appropriate. I also loved the fact that in this world, there isn’t a discrimination towards same-sex couples – and that their sexuality played no part in the big issues that trouble them. (While Taisin tries to change her fate, Kaede is trying to find a way out of an arranged marriage her father had set up for political reasons.)
Unfortunately, while the girls’ actions carry a great consequence for the world they live in, the conflict never feels real to me. There’s a chilling scene in the beginning of their journey, when they heard of a demon child and Taisin feels compelled to see it, but the darkness and impending destruction never felt desperate, and the resolution came too quickly after their long journey. Because of this, and the slower pace in the beginning, I understand that some might not enjoy it as much as I did. To me, Huntress works very well as a story about the life-changing journey of these two young women. I loved that Taisin and Kaede fall for each other slowly, and that despite everything, love isn’t the most important thing to them – who they are and what they want for their lives still matter more. I guess after reading so many books about people practically throwing their lives away for love, this felt refreshing, so I definitely would recommend this book.