Song of the huntress

A sapphic mythical retelling: Song of the Huntress in review

From the author of Sistersong, Song of the Huntress is the latest addition in an ever-lengthening list of mythical retellings. Putting feminism and queer romance front and centre, it draws on the folklore of ancient Britain, like Sophie Keetch’s recent Arthurian story, Morgan is My Name. But, this time, we are situated in the early eighth century, where civil unrest rages against a backdrop of enchantment.

A tale of love triangles and broken loyalties

Song of The Huntress is an epic third-person narrative, told from the point of view of three characters caught in a complex love triangle and a web of magic. 

Lover of Boudica, Herla makes a pact with the King of the Otherworld to help save her land from the Romans in 60AD. But the deceptive king has other ideas, condemning Herla to become Lord of the Hunt. Caught in a never-ending, murderous hunting spree, Herla comes back to herself centuries later, only to discover that everyone she loved is dead. Until the night she meets an icy blue-eyed woman on a battlefield.

Like the eye of a storm, unreally calm, a woman looks back. Mounted atop a horse larger than any Æthel has ever seen, armoured in leather and fur, one of her gauntleted hands is curled around a blade as dark, surely, as the roots of the world.

Based on one of the few female Anglo-Saxon warriors, Queen Æthelberg of Wessex is a fierce fighter trapped in an unhappy marriage to a husband who was once her best friend, but has long since stopped confiding in her. Increasingly frustrated, she is drawn to Herla, the dark-haired woman who seems something other than human. 

Ine is King of Wessex, but that could change at any moment. Reigning amid political instability and personal tension with his wife, he knows that any aethling – a prince or noble with sufficient credentials – may try to overthrow him. But he doesn’t expect it to be his own brother, Ingild. Disapproving of Ine’s gentleness and leniency, Ingild enlists dark forces to come to his aid. 

The magic system

All he sees are trees. Branches wind around his limbs; he bucks, twisting viciously to break free. He gasps for breath, but instead of air, chill earth pours into him, filling him with root and loam until his bones must surely break, flesh giving way before the power of it.

The best part of Song of the Huntress is undoubtedly the writing style; there is something irresistible about Lucy Holland’s rich and lyrical prose. Her story is a dark fairytale, the description of the magic system riveting. In fact, the first instance of magic makes for one of the most unexpected and memorable passages, leaving the reader just as bewildered as Ine, as he unlocks the dormant power he never knew he had. Based on an ancestral connection with the Land, the magic also has environmental connotations which, like the political climate of tense border rivalries, remain pertinent despite the distant setting.

Character, relationships and sexuality

My favourite character was definitely Ine, the troubled king grappling with guilt, family, power and sexuality. In contrast, the presentation of female characters felt more stereotypical, like a generic interpretation of what a strong woman looks like. The result was that Æthelburg somewhat resembles a stock warrior, while I found Herla to be fairly one-dimensional. 

Though the complex relationship between Ine and Æthelburg was well-developed, I dislike miscommunication tropes and there was a lot of this. On one hand, Ine’s reticence to vocalise his feelings makes sense, given that asexuality was not something understood, talked about or expected of a king. Even today, it remains often misunderstood and rarely shown in literature (Alice Oseman’s Loveless is a wonderful exception). But Æthelburg’s repeated misinterpretation of his behaviour became tiresome. Moreover, some mentions of her sexual insistence towards him, despite his clear discomfort, were problematic – though presumably the author intended to highlight these issues.

In the historical note which opens the text, Holland describes her intention to incorporate ‘identities and themes chronically under-pursued in historical narratives,’ – an admirable pursuit, even if its presentation is a little on the nose in the text. 

A female-female romance, an asexual character and a non-binary character are each represented. There is, however, a consciousness of sexuality, in the way in which it is addressed and discussed, that seems unrealistic for the time. Regardless, Holland does not strive for historical accuracy, and I think it’s ultimately more important to recognise and talk about the fact that queer people existed in history.

Final thoughts

In Song of the Huntress, Lucy Holland meets the ongoing appetite for mythical retellings through a vivid reimagining of Celtic folklore, while carving out a niche for herself with a focus on the Anglo-Saxon period. While I personally enjoy a slow-burn read, this one may, at over 400 pages, be a tad too long for popular consumption. Though if you do make it through, it is certainly worth it.