I always admire authors that can switch between genres with ease, just as I admire authors who can write progressive stuff without wholly making a fanfare of how progressive they’re being. And if nothing else, I have to admire Malinda Lo not just for her lovely and addictive prose but for her ability to create a problem opposite to what I usually have: being emotionally invested in a YA love triangle and legitimately interested in how it turns out, perhaps even more than my interest in the main spine of the story. Holy cow, right? Is that even possible?
Malinda Lo has two branches to her writing career, the first being the fantastical Ash and Huntress, set in the same world but many years apart, and the modern-day (quite literally set a little while into the future after it was written, which gives you a hell of a surreal feeling when the story dates itself at August 4th 2014 and you’re reading it on August 2nd) sci-fi conspiracies-and-aliens-and-psychic-powers-oh-my! duology Adaptation and Inheritance. As previously discussed, the two genres really are two sides of the same coin, and though I feel like she has an easier grip of her fantasy books (the writing is much prettier, in any case) each of Lo’s series are as enjoyable as each other and retain an aftertaste recognisable to all her writing. And bisexuals. Did I mention that?
Sorry, I’m just a little excited. Apparently it’s a tricky thing to deal with in fiction, most likely because it’s also a tricky thing to deal with in real life and the swathes of erasure and negative stigmas against bisexual people in both. Which is a shame, because first of all and on a serious note, that’s ruining a lot of lives and pushing a lot of people into closets they don’t want to be in. And secondly because, as I talked about before, there’s something inherently interesting about a multi-gender love triangle, perhaps because it’s just a break from the norm (girl torn between two hunks, or hunk with two girls at war over him, typically) or because people attracted to more than one gender simply gives way to even larger and wackier love quadrangle shenanigans. I love a good tangle of affection, when they’re done well. And my gosh does Malinda Lo do it well.
The relationships are all written with a nice balance of realism and flair, and plenty of time is allowed for the bonds between characters to pick up speed and stick. You find yourself falling a bit in love with the love interests too, if not because of how awesome she makes them sound but because they manage to be layered and interesting three-dimensional characters, with a strong visual to them which often helps. She’s a very visual writer, which lends itself more to the fairy tale world of Ash more than Inheritance, but nonetheless she does paint a convincing and colourful picture of both worlds.
And here’s something else interesting about said worlds. Ladies. Ladies everywhere, subtly and wordlessly woven into the worldbuilding, surprising you by popping up in traditionally male roles of power. In Ash for instance, there is a long-standing tradition that the king has a Huntress to lead his royal hunting party. Not just a skilled hunter to get the regal seal, but specifically a woman. The president of America in Adaptation is also a woman, an ex-member of the military to boot, and apart from some snide bad guy extras clearly meant to be assholes, no one comments on her femaleness once.
In the world of Ash there’s also no such thing as homophobia, and same-sex couples flit around at the bonfire dance to not a single batted eyelid. Adaptation, being set in the real world, looks into this in much more depth, showing Lo’s ability to give weight to the topic as well as create escapist fantasy lands where—and why not, really?—such things just aren’t considered a problem. She builds societies that are recognisable but skews them to the favour of ‘minorities’ usually not in power, both with the kingdom’s blasé attitude to girls smooching and in the character of President Elizabeth Randall and the multitude of others.
This seems to be her thing—as she says herself, she has an aversion to ‘issue novels’ that take a problem in society and make a character’s struggle with it the entire point of a book, be it their race or sexuality or what have you. She brings these things up, moreso in Adaptation than in Ash, because as nice as the fantasy world that doesn’t care is, it would be doing lots of real struggling people a disservice to just breeze over these problems in a supposed real world setting. But she doesn’t make the entire book about them, and folds them in with the plot of the aliens landing on earth messing with everyone’s business.
Reese and David have a conversation in Inheritance about the discrimination he faces as a Chinese-American, which Reese hadn’t considered so much seeing as she’s in a position of privilege herself. There’s also a long discussion about gender between her and Amber the alien, which brings up a think tank about gender norms and perceptions of society, naturally and slightly cliché-edly brought up by the super progressive aliens who simply don’t think it’s as big a deal as humans, and of course the whole shebang with Reese coming to terms with her newly-discovered sexuality. There’s a whole bunch of stuff crammed in there for discussion, but its woven in with the supernatural plot and the movements of the characters so a ‘social justice angle’ doesn’t take over and the books avoid becoming issue novels while acknowledging the weight and importance of the issues themselves.
Which is kind of nice, in a way—not to deny the power of any of these novels that centre around these things, but we’re so used to books that go “This is Reese. She’s bi and this is her struggle” that it’s refreshing to have one that says “This is Reese. She had her DNA altered by aliens and is now caught up in some X Files level crap. Oh yeah, and she’s bi.” The gender and orientation of the characters in the love triangles become noted but essentially irrelevant at a certain point because it becomes so much more about who and what they are as characters.
As mentioned before, the human element is often stronger than the actual supernatural plotline, especially all the stuff with the aliens which feels drawn from a deep recess of tried-and-true sci-fi/conspiracy theory tropes. Maybe it lulls you into a false sense of security and seen-it-all-before so the progressive nature of the romance sticks out more. I won’t spoil the ending of Inheritance, but let’s just say I was pleasantly surprised by how things turned out in that regard. It made up for how unsurprised I was by the advanced, sage and philosophical, psychic, crystal spires and togas aliens.
The verdict? Malinda Lo writes a lot of stuff you may have seen before, whether it’s a Cinderella story or an abducted-by-aliens conspiracy, but she weaves it in so beautifully with things that feel fresh and new, whether because they contain often invisible sexualities or because the characters and worlds feel significantly rich and three-dimensional simply by the sheer knack of her writing. Absolutely recommended, if only for the lovely prose and fantastically put-together fictional hotties.