Ash by Malinda Lo
In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash's capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.
Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief. (blurb from Goodreads)
Rating: PG, 4 stars
Trigger Warnings: some violence, familial/domestic abuse (à la Cinderella)
For the record, Cinderella retellings are my thing. My favorite books as a child include Ella Enchanted, Just Ella, and The Glass Slipper. I don’t know anyone else that has even heard of The Glass Slipper (please shout out if you have!). So when I found Ash on sale over a year ago, I was super pumped. A new Cinderella retelling! Unfortunately, I think it is misleading to bill Ash as a Cinderella retelling. I can definitely see parts of the story that were taken from Cinderella. Ash lives with her stepmother and stepsisters. She works like a servant for them and endures their ridicule and abuse. The prince holds a ball for every eligible maiden in the kingdom. That’s about the end of the Cinderella parallels, though. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; to the contrary, I really enjoyed this book. I just think it shouldn’t have been marketed as a Cinderella retelling. Because that’s not what it is. More on exactly why it isn’t to come.
But if it’s not a Cinderella retelling, what did I like about it? So. Much. Ash felt so real, so human. Her emotions were so raw, which is something not often found in stories that take inspiration from Cinderella. It was really refreshing to see a fairy tale base made so human and genuine. I enjoyed the world-building. I felt the culture was well-integrated, and the role of the King’s Huntress made me really happy. So many fantasy worlds either stick with the status quo and have their military and influential figures male or equally male and female, and here was a martial position that was for women. I really enjoyed that.
I think one of Malinda Lo’s strong suits in writing is writing the gradual development of relationships. It’s something hard to do, and yet I think Lo captures it beautifully in Ash.
I also enjoyed her adaptation of common Cinderella elements. The use of the name Ash plays to both the novel’s Celtic influences and a synonym for cinders. I enjoyed her substitution of a fairy for the fairy godmother/tree/whatever.
Now for complaints. Er, complaint, since I already went over the not-fairy tale thing. I said I loved the world building, but there was one aspect that was frustratingly missing. *SPOILER?* When Ash starts to realize she has feelings for Kaisa, she is concerned about what people will think. Kaisa is clearly not concerned. Since Ash was a little sheltered from people, I assumed that she just didn’t understand the culture’s view of homosexuality, but I wanted a definitive answer on that. I wanted someone to say something or do something that revealed the general acceptance or lack thereof of homosexuality. This was a major frustration for me. *END SPOILER*
Now, for why this isn’t a fairy tale retelling to me. *SPOILER* For me, Cinderella stories are a lot about the prince. In the original tale and most retellings, he is the catalyst for change. He changes the Cinderella figure’s life, whether that is in a good way or not. In Ash, he’s basically a background character. This isn’t “the prince falls for Ash and she chooses the Huntress anyway.” This isn’t “the princess falls for Ash and she falls for the princess.” This isn’t even “the prince falls for Ash but she likes his sister.” No. The prince is there, but Ash dances with the Huntress and then her fairy boy gets pissed. To me, this departure from the how and the why of Cinderella is why Ash isn’t a fairy tale retelling. It is inspired by Cinderella, but no more than that. *END SPOILER*
All in all, I really enjoyed Ash. There were some moments of frustration, but they didn’t really cloud my enjoyment of the book. I thought the writing was beautiful and the characters well-developed. It’s definitely worth reading.