Ash by Malinda Lo

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Malinda Lo was born in China and grew up in Colorado. Ash is her first novel, but her second, Huntress, came out earlier this month. I am pretty excited to have more great young adult fantasy to read. Ash is, in the author’s own words, “a lesbian retelling of Cinderella.” Now, if you’re me, that plus a quick peek at the star rating on Amazon (average is 4) is enough to send you straight to the library to place a hold, but maybe you are not me, and are not so inherently excited about fairy tale retellings, or ladies falling in love with each other. Maybe you need some convincing! Allow me to convince you.

First, the thing about Cinderella retellings is that they have the potential to be really annoying. Because Cinderella is basically a story about how, if you’re nice enough and dutiful enough and obey abusive jerks without ever complaining, someday a prince will notice how beautiful you are and rescue you through the best thing that can happen to a beautiful girl: marriage! And you know, that’s kind of an annoying story to those of us who don’t think obedience and beauty are the most important virtues a woman can have, or that marriage to a prince is the only satisfactory life plan.

Fortunately for us modern ladies, Malinda Lo doesn’t seem to care much for the traditional Cinderella virtues either. Important elements of the story are there: Ash’s mother is dead, her stepmother is horrible to her and her stepsisters (mostly) follow suit, she dances in disguise with a prince at a ball, there’s midnight and disappearing ball gowns and fairy intervention, but Ash’s story is definitely not about being rescued by a prince.

The book begins with the death of 12-year-old Aisling’s mother. Her mother was one of a decreasing number of women who believe in the old stories of fairies and magic, and the local greenwitch argues with Ash’s father about teaching Ash the old ways. Belief in fairies and other magical creatures is slowly being replaced by the teachings of foreign philosophers. Their philosophy is never really explained, but there are hints throughout the story that the culture of Ash’s nameless country is in a period of transition. But Ash is just a little girl who misses her mother terribly, who spends lonely nights by her mother’s grave in the Forest, until one night she’s found by a group of fairies. They leave her alone that night, but years later, after Ash’s father remarried a selfish social climber and then died himself, leaving his new family with debts they demand Ash work to repay, Ash escapes again in the Forest. She finds a fairy path that leads to her mother’s grave, and with it she finds Sidhean, a fairy man who has taken in interest in Ash.

Ash’s life is hard, and she finds little pleasure in it, so the prospect of giving herself up to a fairy is enticing. Her relationship with Sidhean is odd and distant. The first few times they meet, she asks him if he is going to kill her, and though Ash is never directly suicidal, her attraction to Sidhean seems to arise in part from a lack of attachment to her own life - the stories of strange things happening to humans taken by fairies hold more interest for Ash than the world she lives in.

But then she meets the king’s huntress - women traditionally lead hunts in Ash’s country, and the best huntress leads the Royal Hunt. At first it is merely a series of coincidental encounters, but as Ash gets to know the woman, Kaisa, she finds herself less interested in a permanent escape from the world she knows. But her stepfamily and Sidhean stand in the way of any paths she might choose for herself.

Ash is a beautifully-written, slow-moving book. There’s a dreamy, remote character to the style, much the way Ash walks through her life without really inhabiting it. It’s hard for a Cinderella figure to be much of a fighter, given the nature of the story (except, of course, for Ella of Frell), and Ash is a dreamy and somewhat timid girl, resentful of her stepmother but seldom fighting back. But the story is about Ash’s rediscovery of her own value, and the possibility of creating a better life for herself. Which is definitely my kind of Cinderella story.

One of the things I really liked about the book was the way same-sex relationships are so casually integral to the culture Ash lives in. Or at least, lesbians. I’ve returned the book to the library so I can’t check to see if gay male couples were mentioned, but there are fairy tales about women who fall in love with each other, and women casually take other women as lovers. Marriage is still clearly between a man and a woman, and also clearly the most important priority for many women - I get the impression that noblewomen are more socially restricted this way. They’re not supposed to learn trades to support themselves, they’re supposed to depend on men, which sort of rules out taking another woman as your life partner. But, although there are several elements of Ash’s relationship that are transgressive in her circumstances, the fact that they are both women is not. I think it’s important to have stories that portray what it’s like to be gay (or bisexual or any flavor of queer! these are labels that are clearly not a part of Ash’s culture) when you’re surrounded by people who think that means there’s something wrong with you, but I also think it’s great to have stories, particularly for younger audiences, where falling in love with a person is just a thing that happens, and sometimes that person you fall in love with is a man, and sometimes it’s a woman, and it’s all love. But, you know, that’s just the Insidious Gay Agenda talking.