by Rachel Pepper
Huntress by Malinda Lo; Little Brown, $17.99
Malinda Lo, a Bay Area resident, is that rare Young Adult author who easily crosses over to adult LGBT readers. Openly lesbian herself, Lo has written two books that blend fantastical settings with sensitively told love stories between teenage women. Ash, a retelling of the Cinderella myth, was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, the Andre Norton Award for YA Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Lambda Literary Award for Children's/Young Adult. She also received a nod from Kirkus in 2009 for Best Book for Children and Teens.
Growing up near an enchanted wood, and possessing powers that gradually unfold, Ash must work as a servant for her stepmother and stepsisters after the death of her father. In-between cooking and cleaning, Ash is able to visit the fairies in the magical woods near her home, biding her time in unfurling her freedom. As the story builds, so does the relationship between Ash and the young Huntress Kaisa. Soon, Ash begins to dream of a different future for herself. So when she is offered several wishes from the fairy Sidhean, Ash must decide in which direction her future, and her desires, will turn. Readers will hope for a sequel when they reach the book's last, promising pages.
Lo's new book, Huntress, released this month, is a prequel to Ash. But the two books have no characters and few settings in common. Instead, Huntress takes place several hundred years before the time of Ash, in an era when magic was more common in the land, and contact between humans and other species, including the Xi, is strained. It is up to two teenaged girls, Taisan, a sage in training, and practical Kaede, both 17, to save the human world. The two are selected to embark on a journey to Tanlili, the far-off city of the Fairy Queen, to fulfill a difficult mission. The oracle stones have predicted that they will be able to save the human race by bringing the sun back out over their lands. On their quest, they are joined by several older protectors, but all are severely tested by forces aiming to destroy them. These include savage shape-shifters and a pack of wild wolves, a dark Wood inhabited by unknown creatures, and an ice castle built by the evil princess Elowen, whom Kaede must slay to free her own kingdom.
As the group's numbers dwindle, Taisan and Kaede must stay strong, relying on their own powers and on strangers like the greenwitch Mona, for help when needed. Taisan must also contemplate her original mystical vision of the trip, in which she foresaw a love blooming between her and Kaede. Despite her resistance to this love, it begins to take shape, even playing a part in the ability of the girls to defeat Elowen. Although their gender is no impediment to their acceptance as a couple, their love story, tentative and bittersweet, is not guaranteed to endure. Given their young age and the differences in their educational status within their own society, the reader can only hope for their continued happiness.
Fans of fantasy novels will appreciate the worlds that Malinda Lo so carefully constructs. Lo's lush descriptions of the physical landscapes her characters reside in, and the perils they encounter on their journey, make the pages turn effortlessly. Her ability to populate these worlds with compelling young lesbian characters is an added bonus for LGBT readers. And for the growing body of literary works for LGBT teens, both Ash and Huntress are significant additions to the field.