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'Huntress' is a companion novel to Malinda Lo's debut novel 'Ash', which was a retelling of the Cinderella story that featured #teamgirlskissing. 'Huntress' is set in the same fantasy universe, but it's story takes place centuries before the events of Lo's first book.

My review of 'Huntress' is meant to act as a companion review to Renay's review of 'Ash'. ' Renay had strong, interesting, complicated feelings about 'Ash' and I based my analysis of 'Huntress' around a lot of her thoughts, so I'm going to structure this post by rambling around some of the points that she made in her review (see italicized sections).

The plot in brief

Prince Con must travel to meet the Fairy Queen, who has summoned them to discuss an age old border treaty. Taisin (a sage) and Kaede (a failed sage student and close friend of the prince) accompany him, along with a small team of guards. Taisin approaches this journey in the wake of vague, tragic visions about Kaede's dangerous role in the mission that strongly suggest #teamgirlskissing definately be applicable to their relationship.


On love triangles

'The longer I struggled with this book, the more I realized what I had expected and wanted was a true girl-meets-girl-cue-the-hearts fairy tale retelling. What I got was half a book about Ash spending lots of time with a dude, or thinking about a dude and a retelling that feels rather pasted on around this inexplicable relationship with a dude who is ME ME ME and oh yeah, ME! It was predictable and not in a good way. Sidhean, I don't like you, at all, and I'm not sorry!'
Kaede travels with her childhood friend Prince Con and for a while I was worried that there was going to be some uncomfortable tragic triangle where Con would turn out to have feelings for Kaede, which she could never return and it would be all about the sad man pain. Happily, having known her his entire life Con is aware of her sexuality and treats it as fact. His feelings for Kaede are entirely platonic and the book wastes no time on poking the reader, frustrating them with ambiguous hints that he might feel romantically towards her. Instead the book spends its time building an enjoyable picture of their easy, teasing friendship. Hurray!

'On top of the snore-fest of a male love interest (and my confusion on WHY HE EXISTS as a love interest), my dreams were foiled by another love triangle! I could write a book, YA Literature, on your trespasses concerning love triangles. My decision is that most of them suck, they are great big piles of fail and every author in the world thinks they're awesome at them. Meanwhile, back in Reality, most are ill-handled and boring and make whatever romance ends up occurring emotionally unavailable because a lot time was spent doing romantic geometry. I HATED GEOMETRY.'
Both Ana and Renay have talked about the perils of the love triangle in general, so I'm happy to report that 'Huntress' dismisses the possibility of Kaede becoming involved in a m/f/f triangle similar to the one in 'Ash'.

At the beginning of the book Kaede finds out that her father has arranged for her to be married to an older lord from the south to form a political alliance. She refuses to marry the man her father has picked and embarks on a quest that will keep her safely unavailable. Her rejection of this specific suitor is partly a rejection of her father's right to choose her partner, as she has a very hostile relationship with him. She's also rejecting the use of all marriage as a tool to forge political alliances. The reader sees her confide to her friend Fin, here:'Kaede reddened. "I don't want to make any political marriages with anyone"', after Fin reminds her that it is rare for political marriages to be formed between women.

However, Kaede's is also clear that the main reason she can't enter into this partnership is because she can never love a man. She knows she can only fall in love with a woman, despite her mother telling her to be open to a marriage with a man (who knows, her mother says, maybe she'll get lucky and he'll die in battle, leaving her to the lovers she'll have chosen, wouldn't that be sweet?). What's more Kaede's future husband never appears on the page, so this book is not concerned at all about as Renay said in her review of 'Ash' 'that dude's feelings'.

But just because the dudes are out of the picture, that doesn't mean a love triangle is impossible (No shit! Are you sure?). Kaede's mentor is a woman named Fin and they are very close friends. When Kaede sets out on her quest with Con and Taisin, they are accompanied by a small group of palace guards, including a woman named Shae (omfg Shae and your innate, subtle challenge to culturally embedded notions about the female gender. I heart you!). As I met each lady I wondered whether either of these women be candidates for love triangle participant number three. I was primed for love triangles by Renay's review, because, well, once an author decides that today we are learning about the triangle it's rare to see them look at any other shapes. When a triangle failed to appear I was glad.

'That's where I was at the end of this book: picturing myself back in Mr. Norwood's math classroom as he berated me for NOT GETTING IT. Everyone ELSE gets it, Renay. Why are you so dense? You are the only one in the class who does not worship these triangles and formulas! Get with the program. YOU'RE GOING TO MAKE AN F IN YA ROMANCE.'
Instead of love triangles, with their incredible amounts of angst, 'Huntress' provides a love story that shows what a real choice between love and something else looks like. Ana once said something to the effect that heterosexual love triangles can make it seem as if the only choice the girl has is Boy Brand A, or Boy Brand B, but either way they have to choose Boy of some brand. How often is a love triangle story resolved by the girl choosing to go off to Brazil to become a restaurant owner? How often does the girl leave for college without the dude? That kind of narrative is denied and you can see why, because all the narrative conflict of book that feature love triangles are built up around the protagonist making a romantic choice. How unsatisfying would it be neither of these eagerly hyped options were taken up and the protagonist went off to make a totally random third choice that the narrative had never previously gestured towards?1

Books like 'Huntress' that come without the necessary parts for love triangles, but still build a significant portion of their plot around romance, allow these kind of narratives to take place. Readers are presented with Taisin who must choose between a career as a sage, which she's wanted all her young life and a romantic relationship (sage's have to remain celibate, because the combination of extreme power and super overwhelming sexy feelings is deemed dangerous). There's also Kaede who has to choose between her duty to societal tradition and her own feelings (admittedly Kaede's is a much easier choice than Taisin's, as she really doesn't want to get married and is great at expressing her own agency, while Taisin really wants to be a sage).


On Kaede and Taisin, romanticalness and anticipation

'I was disappointed in the romance. There was no spark or life or UST! I am very bitter about the lack of UST. I pined in this book, but it was all wrong. I pined for Sidhean to die in a terrible magical horse riding accident and I pined for more sexual tension between Ash and Kaisa and at some point the pining simply becomes a forest of disappointment, deep and dark and moist with all of my tears.'
This is going to be my favourite part of this post! Jodie lists some of the hot, sometimes slightly cheesy, sometimes just really pleasing romantic moments of this book. Yay! Let's start with a quote from Taisin and Kaede's first interaction:

'The Mistress leaned forward slightly, her dark eyes focused on Kaede. "You have been called, as well."

Kaede stared at her for a moment, dumbfounded. "Me?" It made no sense to her.

And then, Taisin who had been silent until now, said: "I had a vision. I had a vision, and you were in it." '
I know that reading this in isolation it sounds kind of like a cheesy pick up line, but it floored me. Reading it in context, the reader watches Taisin covertly reveal something they understand better than Kaede, as well as something Taisin doesn't understand herself and is reluctant to explor:

'She saw a beach made of ice, and she felt her heart breaking….

Someone there was climbing into a rowboat, and she knew she loved this person. She was certain of it the way that one is instantly aware of the taste of sweetness in a drop of honey…

She opened her mouth to call the rower back – she couldn't bear the loss; it would surely cripple her-'
And then they go a-questing together. Oh why yes, that is my bliss, thank you so much for finding it.

'I think it is important for me to say I enjoyed Ash and Kaisa. I wanted more of everything for them: more time and more feelings and more falling in love and more adventure. Perhaps saying that I wanted more UST/passion is tied up in my skewed view of the world (despite how not-straight I am, clearly it still impacts me) and I have some work to do about my assumptions next time I attempt to read a lesbian romance. Even so, I wanted more of them together and I think this is maybe not an unreasonable expectation based on the flap of the book!'
So that you can understand just why I am so fond of people who are set up as future lovers who go adventuring together and with other friends, I should probably mention that I have seen Ladyhawke about thirty times. You know the film: there's a woman cursed to be a hawk by day and a man cursed to be a wolf by night. They're in love, but are doomed never be together in human form. Matthew Broderick must help them to reverse the curse by travelling to a city on a particular day and along the way he engages in complicated relationships with both characters, but a true love triangle is never really on the cards. I know, I know, it's way cooler to say you like the journeying with friends and lovers trope because 'The Lord of the Rings' changed your life, but for me it was Ladyhawke.

And despite the fact that 'Shiver' by Maggie Steifvater is actually much more like Ladyhawke with the whole boy cursed to be a wolf in winter thing, 'Huntress' hits my Ladyhawke buzzer way harder. The group sets out on a mission which is...important. They have to meet the Fairy Queen who can explain why the human world hasn't seen a change in seasons for so long and her knowledge may help them end the crop failure that is killing their society. However, this whole quest is essentially an excuse for developing the characters, their relationships with each other and engaging everyone in death defying adventures (again, yay). Taisin and Kaede spend a lot of travelling together, bonding through their common experiences and forming friendships with their fellow travelers. Even though Taisin is determined to avoid falling in love with Kaede (because she wants to be a sage, but also because in her vision the woman she loves is being taken away and it hurts her), she spends a lot of time thinking about her, or awkwardly blushing because she finds herself interacting with Kaede too much. It is freaking gorgeous, how Taisin's internal conflict and her confusion at the blossoming of feelings that she has already felt in a vision are tenderly displayed in small moments of uncomfortable body language like blushes and cloak twisting. It seems like they're continually thrown into situations that cause Kaede and Taisin to be closer than Taisin would like:

'Taisin screamed; she scrambled back as the force of his blows caused the coach to sway. Her shoulder slammed against Kaede, who was also pushing herself away from the door. In their haste they tumbled onto the floor, their bodies pressed together in the narrow space between the seats.'
Moments like these remind me of the kind of situations Cindy Pon puts her characters in throughout 'Fury of the Phoenix'. Hot.

Once Kaede catches on that Taisin is interested in her scenes start appearing that vibrate with UST, where the girls are alone in forests and when Kaede has to rescue Taisin from drowning. This incorporation of romance scenes into adventure situations is one of my favourite things and honestly if you want to please me a 'rescued from river scene' is pretty dead on certain.

The problem of destined love

Despite being thrilled to find such a deep, sweet, passionate romance in 'Huntress' I was often irked at the reminders that Kaede and Taisin's love is destined from the start. Ana has mentioned her reservations about depictions of romance that revolve around 'The One' and now I'm slapping my cards down, declaring myself fed up with romances that are somehow influenced by the stars and the fates. I am so over the universe directing characters towards partners. Putting destiny in the equation (to take us back to the maths of romance) takes away the characters entire romantic agency. It's basically like the universe is setting a character up with its 'totally original' mate. The universe has thoughtfully already bought the two of them a house, a car and paid for a big splashy wedding with a band, so they kind of have to get together. The guilt the universe would put on you should this relationship not work out is way more crushing than anything your parents could put on you. I'm rambling, but whatever, personally I'm over the universe setting up dates for everyone when they could clearly get their own dates (maybe even with the people the universe picks out for them) because they're awesome.

The girl's romance isn't definitely destined, but it maybe is? Taisin has recurring visions of Kaede leaving and in those visions she feels an overwhelming sense of love for a girl she doesn't know. However, her teacher tells her that visions don't always represent the future, or even the truth.

At first the novel begins by trying to convey the confusion Taisin feels at knowing her romantic life will involve this girl she doesn't know, by voicing Taisin's thoughts:

'"I felt-I think that I" — she looked away, biting her lip, and finally she blurted it out quickly — "I think that I was in love with Kaede. In my vision. But that is-that can't happen, can it? I want to be a sage, and I know that all sages take vows of celibacy. Does that mean that I—that I will never become a sage?"
but this thread of examination isn't explored enough to make it a significant theme of romantic commentary, or a large critique of destined romance. The visions come true; Taisin and Kaede fall in love. It seems that in this case Taisin's visions represented reality and predicted a destined romantic fate that cannot be changed however hard Taisin tries to keep herself from becoming involved with Kaede. And y'know there's the universe getting in the way of my romance love, as a little niggling voice butts in and wonders how much of their love comes from starry compulsion. It's a wicked little voice; I lock it in a cupboard. There's SO much in this book that shows Taisin and Kaede developing their romance through mutual experience and shared feeling. But the voice's muffled comments continue to intrude, because well what if all that getting to know each other is just destiny putting its puppets in the right place. It feels real, but can destiny arranged, (or thinking of other novels, god arranged) love be as authentic as love conceived in a world where humans are the only force that can create love?

Although I've made kind of a big deal about the destiny element of Taisin and Kaede's relationship, it was more of an accumulation problem. I had read a lot of destined relationships, I did not want to read any more, then another turned up and provoking a 'for the love of...get out!' type of reaction. Blame all the books that came before it.


Representation vs. what's right for the book

Guess what I was reading when I made that 'I hate having to use representation arguments, it's all about me clearly!' comment last week?

At the end of 'Huntress' Kaede and Taisin end their relationship, because Taisin plans to return to her sage training. During their final journey together they go with Con to collect Shae, who had to be left behind with a kindly greenwitch to heal earlier in the story. Con and Shae reunite in a loving embrace. The lesbian characters have to break up and it hurts (seriously, restrained sadness abounds, oh my heart) and the straight characters get the happy ending. Yeah...

I think 'Huntress' tries to complicate this straight forward, depressing representational analysis without compromising an ending that feels appropriate for these individual characters. Readers don't know how the relationship between Con (a prince) and Shae (a guard) will end. The last paragraph of the book brings them to a kind of happy ending and implies their relationship might have a chance of being accepted by Con's father, but there's no definite epilogue to confirm textually that their love is sanctioned by the palace (although I suspect Kaede's comment that ' "The prince and the guard who fell in love on a journey to the Firy Queen's city." ' 'will make an excellent story' is intended to highly influence reader's imaginative creation of what happens next). While Kaede says that she loves Taisin and 'that's all there is' as they prepare to separate, again there's space for the reader to imagine future romances with for her. Taisin is off to be a celibate sage, which limits how much her own ending can complicate representational analysis of the resolution to the lesbian love story. However, I think her individual character choice does a great job of presenting an alternative to the commonplace romantic finale, where it is implicit that having found love a character will stay with that person forever and ever and omg I want her to grow up powerful, but kind and change EVERYTHING.

These complications feel right for the characters in 'Huntress' novel and they put forward a great alternative the 'forever and ever' narrative of love. And the ending doesn't leave characters relying on romantic resolutions to bring them happiness, as Taisin returns to pursue the calling she desperately wants and Kaede looks forward to a life of adventure. I don't want to focus too much on the lasting romance they don't get, when they get so much else (I feel like I'm always doing that) and I love that the exchange where Con asks Kaede if she's sure she wants to let Taisin go acknowledges that other things can be as important as romance:

'"No," Kaede said, "and yes. How can I ask her to give up what she wants most?"

"She wants you."

"Not only me, and that's as it should be." Though it pained her to say it, she was beginning to discover she believed it. "Here path is different from mine."
But like Renay is always reminding me, no one writes in a vacuum. When examined through a representational lens this ending feeds is yet another example of the lack of happy romantic endings for lesbian couples. Maybe the world needs more stories where girls get to love other girls as well as getting adventurous, powerful lives? Representation arguments…argh! I hate society for making them a significant thing.

I kind of feel like I should read 'Ash' now, to understand the cultural bits of Lo's world that I may have missed that Ana talks a bit about in her review of her that Ana talks a bit about in her review of'Ash', but before I do I think I'll linger with my memories of Kaede and Taisin a while longer. I'm gonna leave the ladies lying together alone, before seeing what difference a dude makes.

1 Of course the book could just hype the two romantic choices AND a third choice, but weva this is the road widely untraveled.

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