Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Fiction Book Review
Ash USA cover art Ash by Malinda Lo

Little, Brown hardcover / trade paperback - 264 pages
Copyright 2009
Cover photograph by Amina Bech

Book reviewed February 2011

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Ash by Malinda Lo is a beautifully written novel, combining modern sensibilities with the elegant, wistful voice of a fairy tale.  Published as a young adult novel, but equally enjoyable to adult readers, Ash is a loose retelling of the story of Cinderella.  The set-up is roughly the same: the untimely deaths of her parents leave Aisling, Ash for short, in the care of a cruel stepmother and nasty stepsisters (although it turns out one of the sisters isn't so bad when you get to know her), who treat Ash as a servant.  Her hopes for escape rest on assistance from the fairy world.

From there, however, the details of the story bend in a decidedly un-Disney direction.  For one thing, while there is a grand ball hosted by a charming prince who must choose a bride, it gradually becomes apparent that Ash is drawn instead to Kaisa, the King's huntress.

Some have described Ash as a lesbian version of Cinderella, but I think that does the book a disservice.  It is first and foremost a vividly imagined expansion of the Cinderella story, with a mysterious and ominous analogue to the fairy godmother, and a wonderfully realized protagonist who takes a far more active role in her own story than the traditional character.  The fact that Ash is attracted to the King's huntress rather than the prince is only one of many ways in which she defies her fate and others' expectations.

In the first half of the novel, Ash loses both parents by the age of 12 and begins to contemplate escape from her stepmother into the fairy world.  She is fascinated with her medieval land's fairy tales, collected in a book of her mother's, one of the few possessions her scoffing stepmother permits her.  Ash believes fairies offer her a way out of her unhappy existence, even though few of the stories she memorizes end well for the humans involved.  She delves ever deeper into her country's lush and forbidding forest, seeking its magical denizens.

There Ash meets a tall, handsome fairy named Sidhean (pronounced "Sheen"), who takes an unusual interest in her, for reasons involving Ash's mother, who had a touch of the magical.  But when Ash hopefully tells Sidhean a story she heard, of a girl who traveled to the fairy world to see her dead parents, he offers little encouragement:

        When she stopped speaking he said nothing for a moment, and Ash realized that all of the Wood was silent around them -- she could not even hear the sound of the wind in the branches, though she felt its cold breath on her face.
        Finally he said, "Is that why you sought me out? To tell me a -- " He paused, his lip curling, and continued, "A
fairy tale?"
        She was undaunted.  "Is it true?" she asked.  "Is the tale true?"
        "What is true for your people is not true for mine," he answered.
        "But can you not take me to see her?" she asked, and she yearned for him to say yes.
        "Your mother is dead, Aisling," he said, and the words felt like they were physically striking her.

Throughout the novel, Lo does a terrific job of exploring the boundary between fairy tales and the "real" world, a boundary which parallels Ash's internal struggles.

Ash's attachment to the huntress Kaisa develops as Ash matures in the second half of the book.  Where Sidhean and the fairy world are pale and cold and ephemeral, Ash's interactions with Kaisa are characterized by earth and steel and blood rushing to their cheeks.  Lo presents Ash's emerging homosexuality tastefully but unapologetically.  Ash's fascination with Kaisa and disinterest in the prince reflect not merely sexual orientation, but the principle of choosing love over material concerns -- after all, the reason each of those eligible ladies hopes the prince will choose her is he's filthy rich.

The novel's pacing is my only minor nitpick with Ash.  While the initial scenes featuring Sidhean are repetitive and drawn out, the development of Ash's relationship with Kaisa feels hurried.  I would have liked Lo to dwell a bit more on the connection between them.  Overall, however, Ash's growth from a frightened girl to a strong-willed woman is most satisfying.

          Ash is a highly entertaining and successful reimagining of the story of Cinderella, a remarkably strong first novel for Malinda Lo, and a deserving nominee for the Andre Norton Award for young adult SF/F.  I'm glad to have found it belatedly and look forward to the prequel Huntress, due in April.
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Copyright 2011 Aaron Hughes
Ash by Malinda Lo
Hodder Children's Books
UK edition cover art
Ash UK cover art

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Links to other Malinda Lo reviews, articles, and websites:
Malinda Lo - author website
Ash (novel) - Wikipedia

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This page was last updated - 10 February 2011