Review: Huntress by Malinda Lo

Huntress by Malinda Lo

Genre: YA, Fantasy

Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers on April 5, 2011

Source: Library

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.

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Not your standard quest story, Malinda Lo’s HUNTRESS focuses more on the internal lives and emotional struggles of its characters than it does on world building. Set in a world inspired by feudal China, this story follows two young women named Kaede and Taisin as they journey into the land of the fairy queen in hopes of stopping an endless winter. But can Kaede and Taisin resist the pull of attraction between them and focus on their mission, or will they find a way to save their kingdom while staying together?

This is the first book I’ve read by Lo and it certainly won’t be the last; while HUNTRESS isn’t anything special in terms of the world it portrays, it’s still beautifully written and quite affecting. If you’ve been following the blog for a while, you know there’s nothing I love more than star-crossed lovers fighting for their lives and their love, and HUNTRESS delivers on both those fronts. Unfortunately where the story stumbles is with plot and world building, both of which I felt were sorely lacking in originality. This is yet another case of the dreaded “we journeyed from one place to another and fought some battles along the way” story.

Despite the unique setting, there wasn’t actually that much world building that differed from traditional Medieval-European inspired quest stories. Sure, the religious order that Taisin belongs to is inspired by the I-Ching rather than Christianity, and all the characters are described as east-Asian in appearance, but that’s about it. I would’ve loved to see more Chinese influences in the story, particularly with respect to the fairies that Kaede and Taisin need to treat with to save their kingdom from starvation. Aside from a few spirits inspired by traditional legends, the Xi are essentially white attractive fae. Nothing too exciting there, unless I completely missed something.

The real excitement in HUNTRESS comes from the careful, subtle character development throughout the story. When the story begins, Kaede is a restless and unmoored girl with no real plans for the future besides defying her demanding father’s expectations. But as she experiences new and strange things on the road, Kaede trains in the art of the hunters and becomes a free-thinking, self-assured person. Taisin, too, grapples with the weight of her talents and what she wants out of life, questioning for the first time whether she really wants her future as a sage…a future that would prevent her from being with Kaede. The relationship between these two young women really tugged at my heartstrings and I think it’s very relatable for anyone who’s had to decide whether to pursue a relationship even if it’s at the cost of your dreams.

And for those of you who’re wondering, yes HUNTRESS is a standalone. It’s set in the same world as Malinda Lo’s other standalone novel ASH, but hundreds of years prior and introduces an entirely new set of characters. HUNTRESS is great if you’re looking for a slight twist on more traditional YA fantasy fare, but don’t expect too much in the way of world building.

What’s your favourite twist on a traditional fantasy story? Have you read anything by Malinda Lo? Let me know in the comments!

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  • Greg Hill

    This sounds great for the character development! And a standalone too. It sounds like it could use more Chinese influences/ folklore but in spite of the worldbuilding stuff I’m pretty intrigued by this. I’ll probably add this for the characters.

    Nice cover too.

    • Standalone is totally the magic word for fantasy novels, isn’t it? I absolutely loved the character development and I quite liked Lo’s writing too, but I wanted a lot more from the world building. I’ll keep an eye out for your thoughts on this one, Greg! πŸ™‚

  • I’m not familiar with this author at all, but thanks for introducing me to her:-) It’s funny, because I just read a wonderful “journey” story, but I guess it takes something special to elevate those from the norm. Oh and LOVE the cover!

    • No problem, Tammy! She’s been on my radar for ages, and even though this wasn’t the perfect book for me I’m definitely stoked to read some more from her. Hopefully the next one I read won’t be a “journey” story!

  • Hmmm this one seems pretty interesting! It’s been a while since I read an Asian-themed fantasy so maybe I’ll have to give this one a shot. If it contains some battle-fighting then I’ll probably enjoy it, hahaha!

    • There are so few mainstream Asian-inspired fantasy novels out there that missing even one or two can leave a big gap in your reading, I think. There are battles aplenty in this one, have no fear!

  • Aw no. Sounds like lost potential with the worldbuilding being so weak :(Full marks for excellent characterisation though!

    • Full marks on characterization, but Lo didn’t stick the landing in terms of world building. She’s written a ton of books though, and I’m certain that I’ll love at least one of them based on her writing style, so I’m going to persevere!

  • I do want to try something by her one day

    • She’s been around for ages, I’m shocked that it took me this long to read something by her!

  • I remember seeing this one around the time it published and thinking, wow, this probably should have gotten more publicity/attention. Diverse author, diverse characters, somewhat pioneering at the time… I haven’t read the book (I’ve seen mixed reviews, like yours), so I’m not sure I want to give it a go. I’ve heard it was a bit boring so I didn’t bother. I’m glad you enjoyed it overall though! Excellent review, Danya!

    Have a wonderful week. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!

    • If I’m not mistaken, I think all of Malinda Lo’s books feature queer PoC in either primary or secondary roles (which is awesome). So the good news is that while this one may not appeal to you, her other books might! I’ve heard great things about her YA sci-fi, Adaptation. I’m definitely going to give that one a shot.

      Thanks Alyssa! πŸ™‚

  • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

    Even though the worldbuilding seems a little lacking, your review points to some wonderful characterization, and sometimes that’s more than enough to enjoy a book. I find your description of these characters quite fascinating, and will add this book to my list of next reads.
    Thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

    • We have such similar reading habits, Maddalena! I can forgive a lot of weaknesses in a book if I think the characterization is strong. I’m excited to hear what you think of Kaede and Taisin, I’ll keep an eye out for your review. πŸ™‚

      • MaddalenaSpaceandSorcery

        It might be a while (every time I consider the length of my “next” list or my TBR pile I wonder when I will manage to read all I want to read…) but I will get there! πŸ™‚

  • I’ve had this book on my shelves forever it seems like. Gah. I don’t know why I haven’t picked it up. Oh, I know. It’s probably because I’m not much of a fantasy reader. I love that she’s written some books in the same world but not really connected. Interesting!

    • Well, the good news is that this book isn’t exactly heavy on the fantasy elements so you may have better luck with it than most fantasy lovers (like me). It has that historical fiction/fantasy vibe going on with the setting, so you might enjoy that. I’m intrigued by Ash too, the other standalone in this world…I’m planning to pick it up soon!

  • Bookworm Brandee

    I don’t mind a book that’s more character-driven than plot-driven but with all that could have been done with the world building, I’d be disappointed as well. Although it sounds like the character development is slow to come along this journey, so… I might pick this up at the library though just to give it a try. I’ve not read anything from Lo but I know I was curious about Ash. I don’t read a lot of fantasy so I don’t know what my favorite twist would be. I’ll have to add some fantasy to my reading diet so I can determine my favorite twist. πŸ™‚

    • This definitely felt like a case of wasted potential in some aspects, and I was definitely disappointed by the lack of detail in the world building. That’s a complaint that can be levelled against a lot of YA fantasy though, haha. Despite my issues with this one, I’m definitely going to read more from Lo because I liked what I saw! Good luck with your new reading diet, Brandee! πŸ˜‰

  • Lynn Williams

    I like the sound of the beautiful writing. A shame it falls down in other areas. And I love the cover.
    Lynn πŸ˜€

    • The cover is SO gorgeous! And it actually reflects the characters and story, which is awesome. Hopefully Lo’s other books have stronger world building, because I do want to read more from her.

  • I’ve got to say, I’ve never read any Malinda Lo. I’ve heard this book mentioned vaguely wanted to read it and then promptly forgot about it. This happens to many a book for me. It’s not the books fault but mine for not writing more things down. You have successfully reminded me both of the book but also why I wanted to read it in the first place. Sure, it may not be the most groundbreaking with its world and plot but it still sounds pretty awesome.

    • How is it that we’ve been sleeping on Malinda Lo and the awesomeness that is her writing for all this time?! Seriously, great diverse rep, own voices, and she writes YA fantasy and sci-fi, so how is it we haven’t read more from her? I need to rectify that ASAP. I’m very intrigued by her sci-fi Adaptation, not least of which because it’s a duology and both books are already released.

  • I enjoyed Huntress too, though I completely agree with you, it would have been nice to have more elements of Chinese legends and lore woven into the world-building. I wonder if there was a feeling at the time that the book shouldn’t be “too diverse” – publishers still get nervous when a book ticks too many “boxes”, like having characters who are queer and POC, which is so frustrating! And yes – how rare is a standalone novel in the fantasy/YA worlds?!?!?!

    • I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who felt that way! Oh wow, good point – I hadn’t even considered that explanation. I sincerely hope that’s not actually the case though, because as you said Jane…super frustrating and problematic. Intersectional diversity is where it’s at!

      More fantasy standalones, 2017! Let’s make it happen! Hahaha.

  • I’ve seen this one around the blogosphere and really I’m interested in trying it. I do love some good world building though so hopefully that won’t be a huge downer on the experience for me. I’ll keep my eyes open for this and will eventually get to it on my never-ending TBR!

    • Malinda Lo is someone I’d heard a lot about in various bookish communities, so I’m happy to have finally read something by her even if I wasn’t completely blown away. The never-ending TBR can definitely be a problem – there are just too many cool sounding books out there!

      • And then there’s some bloggers who rave about the books they love so much you can’t HELP but add them to the already massive TBR, right!!!! πŸ˜‰ πŸ˜‰ Although I have loved your recs, so don’t stop!

  • I read this book some years ago and remember that I was a bit disappointed by the world building and the character development, an ok book, but nothing that made me excited for more.

    • I hear you on the world building for sure, although I actually really liked the characterization in Huntress. From what I’ve heard about Malinda Lo’s books, I think her sci-fi might work better for me since it seems more action-packed.

  • This definitely sounds like it had a lot of potential! That’s too bad world building wasn’t amazing but I’m glad other parts made up for it. Lovely review!

    • Huntress had SO much potential, it’s too bad that it didn’t full live up to it (for me, at least). but I’m definitely going to explore Malinda Lo’s other books soon. Thank you, Cyn! πŸ™‚

  • Oooo..i’m sad this was a 3.5 star read for you! i was reallllly looking forward to reading this book …sad about the lack of world building..by some coincidence I *just* published a post about world building πŸ˜›

    I’ve heard a lot about Malinda Lo and how diverse her books are…I think I’ve an eBook of a science fiction book by her; can’t remember now :/ But it seems like a decent enough read so might pick it up someday..Great review Danya πŸ™‚

    • This one had been on my TBR for the Fantastically Diverse Readathon, and even though it wasn’t a perfect read I’m really glad I did read it. So thanks for the push to pick it up. πŸ˜‰ Ooh, I’ll have to check that post out soon!

      I’ve heard a lot about the diversity and creativity in her stories, too. Apparently most (if not all) of them feature queer PoC characters, which I’m totally here for. Thank you, Uma! πŸ™‚

  • Hi, Danya! Thanks for stopping and commenting on my blog despite my current MIA status! It looks like my blogging time will be limited until summer.

    I’m in love with this cover! I haven’t read anything by Malinda Lo, but I’ve heard about her Ash. Sorry to hear there were so little Chinese influences in this story. The romance and character development sound wonderful, I always prefer books with strong characters and can look past some faults in world building. I don’t have a particular favorite twist on a traditional fantasy story, I guess I love when the author uses the original story as an inspiration and writes his/her own unique book.

    • Hi Ksenia, of course! You know I love visiting your blog, and I definitely understand about life getting busy. Good luck with your PhD, and I hope you and your family are doing well.

      It’s a great cover, and I’m so relieved that an East Asian cover model was chosen for this. There are waaaaay too many whitewashed YA fantasy book covers out there. While this wasn’t a perfect read for me, the characterization and the romance totally saved it and I still ended up liking it. That’s a good point about using a well known story to write a unique book! I’ll have to think about that and see if I can come up with any good examples. πŸ™‚

      • I love Rosamund Hodge’s stories.

  • This cover is so beautiful! I haven’t read anything by this author yet, although I so want to start this one. World building plays such a BIG part, so I am disappointed there isn’t a lot of that in hereπŸ˜‘ But yay for LGBT+! Great review Danya😎