Audrey reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash

Oh, wow! I’ve finally gotten to my first Malinda Lo book. It will not be the last. Ash is a retelling of Cinderella. It’s twisty, it has a fair amount of the fair folk, and it has some great love interests. It’s also one of those books I knew would already have been reviewed a couple times here. I looked at Katie Raynes’ review and appreciated her take on the story’s roots in the wild hunt, and in Lo’s vivid evocation of landscape. Laura Mandanas’ review focuses more on relationships and a little gender theory. What can I add or emphasize? I was surprised that this was a retelling of Cinderella where the prince isn’t even really a thing. He’s barely a plot device (and a sulky, sullen one at that).

One of the lovely things about this book is that it fully realizes the progression of Ash’s journey from beloved daughter to maligned stepchild. Too often, this feels rushed or glossed over, and hence unbelievable, but I could buy this. Another lovely thing is that we as readers actually get a sense of Ash’s mother as a character, and the mother is an integral character even after her death. Her influence is woven into the plot. There: The prince doesn’t matter, the dead mother does.

In this homophobia-free world, homosexuality is like being left-handed. Perfectly natural, but generally, people aren’t. Ash’s slow realization of her attraction to Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, is all the more lovely for being tinged with nothing but wonder and curiosity. Meanwhile, although the sulky human prince isn’t a contender, Ash is indeed attached to a prince. He’s a brittle, glittery Jareth who takes the word “glamorous” back to its original meaning. Old, old magic against real, young love: so there’s the excellent internal conflict against a backdrop of a fabulous world, and in living conditions that are fairly awful (though not all of the stepfamily is painted with the same broad strokes).

On a final note, the fun factor of this book was through the roof. It was tremendously enjoyable. If it’s been on your long list, maybe bump it up?

Katie Raynes reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash

I’d encountered numerous mentions of Malinda Lo’s Ash, a retelling of Cinderella, long before I bought a copy. It’s always on lists of fantasy fiction with lesbian protagonists and from what I’ve seen, it enjoys a lot of popularity and good reviews. I bought it hoping to find a professional, lush retelling of a fairy tale, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Ash draws inspiration from all sorts of European mythology, particularly stories of the Wild Hunt. The story follows the usual Cinderella plot but is wound through with several sub-stories that added depth and allowed me to empathize more with the characters than I do when I read traditional fairy tales. From the beginning to the end, one of the things that drives Ash is the memory of her deceased mother, and many of the story’s significant mysteries involve her mother both in origin and resolution. In fact, all of the major pieces of the story in Ash are woven together skillfully. There are two people with whom Ash has significant relationships – Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, and the fairy Sidhean. Though the nature of these relationships is very different, they’re intertwined and each relies on the other to hold the plot together.

One of the things that really drew me into the story was the landscape. I tend to fall in love with landscapes in fantasy stories, and sometimes they end up being what brings me back to a book again and again. The settings in Ash were no exception. Much of the story takes place in forests, and they were all vividly realized with vibrant and contrasting details. Among the various settings were the deep, wild northern forests near where Ash grew up; the sunny, Sherwood-like woods where she met with Kaisa; the moonlit and gossamery faery glades that seemed to flicker in and out of reality; the bleak, stone-hard houses where she lived under the oppression of her step-family; and the resplendent garden-ringed palace of the royal family. All of them felt real enough to me that I looked forward to each setting change.

Ash’s relationship with Kaisa was satisfying but uncomplicated; I definitely rooted for Kaisa as Ash’s love interest even though Ash’s relationship with Sidhean could be considered more complex. The normal Cinderella “prince looking for a bride” plot took a backseat to Ash’s developing love for Kaisa and navigation of her bond with Sidhean, and I definitely preferred it that way. The prince was more of a backdrop, a reason for the celebrations at which Ash and Kaisa were able to meet. I felt that the resolution to all of the plot’s mysteries was somewhat sudden and vague, but I cared more about the journey anyway, and the journey was definitely worth it.

Laura Mandanas reviews Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo

The first chapter of Ash by Malinda Lo stopped me in my tracks. Lo’s writing here is not the type that should be read hurriedly — speed reading here would be like sprinting through the Taj Mahal, blindfolded, and calling it sightseeing. Such a waste! No, readers will do best to advance slowly. Pause. Ponder. Resume wandering, slowly. Bask in each word of the luminous and evocative prose. This book is one worth lingering over.

Placed in a vaguely medieval secondary fantasy world, this “Cinderella” retelling follows young Aisling (“Ash”) as she comes to terms with personal tragedy and struggles to work out her place in the world. Curious, independent, and full of longing for her lost mother and the fairy world, Ash reminds me heavily of the character Saaski from The Moorchild. Like Saaski, Ash has to make a choice between two very different worlds. Unlike Saaski, Ash has no human boy companion to help her. Prince Charming does no rescuing; indeed, Ash shows very little interest in him whatsoever. But this does not mean that she is alone.

Though Ash never declares a label for her sexuality, her burgeoning relationships indicate bisexuality. (Note that as a young adult novel, there’s no explicit sex of any kind in the book.) In this world, same sex relationships are as commonplace and unremarkable as opposite sex relationships. Lo explains on her website, “In Ash’s world, there is no homosexuality or heterosexuality; there is only love. The story is about her falling in love. It’s not about her being gay.”

My favorite thing about this book is the depth and realism that Lo depicts in her inter-character relationships. Heartwarmingly full of that familiar first time awkwardness, Ash’s relationship with the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, is a pleasure to watch unfold. Conversely, her incisive relationship with the dangerous and seductive fairy Sidhean is bone-chilling… but mesmerising. Even the complicated sisterly bond Ash has with her two stepsisters — absolutely beautifully rendered.

I won’t ruin the ending for you, but I will warn you that it comes without fanfare, tacked on almost as an afterthought. It wasn’t terrible, but the big, book-long buildup had me expecting more. Luckily, there’s a prequel?

Ash is available in paperback ($8.49), hardcover ($12.33), and ebook ($7.99).