Mfred's Reviews > Ash

Ash by Malinda Lo
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Dec 24, 09

bookshelves: fairy-tale-retelling, queer, young-adult
Read in December, 2009

** spoiler alert ** I started this book in despair, then got into the story, only to find myself disappointed at the end. Most reviews describe Ash as lyrical and dark retelling of the Cinderella story, and there is nothing I love more than a dark fairytale. I picked up the novel with great anticipation and was almost immediately unhappy.

First, the plot: some of the details are familiar-- after her father's death, Aisling, our Cinderella, is forced to serve her cruel stepmother and spoiled stepsisters.

However, instead of a fairy grandmother and prince rescuing our overworked damsel-in-distress, Ash purposefully seeks out the Wood, wild and dark, rumored to be the home of human-stealing faerie. While in the Wood, she meets Sidhean, a faerie who seems drawn to her, only to push her away, warning her of the frightening outcomes to her recklessness. She also meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, and begins maybe the first real friendship of her life. Ash soon finds herself faced with a choice: find escape from her harsh step-family through Sidhean, entering into the unknown dangers of faerie-- or, stay in this world, which has often proven to be so unkind, and follow through on her budding relationship with Kasia.

Spoiler alert! Its a lesbian Cinderella! So not only was I expecting a dark and twisty re-telling of a classic story, but I also was promised lesbian romance!

With all of this, why was I so despairing? Within the very first page of the novel, instead of finding the language lyrical and moving, I found it grating. It never picked up the easy grace and natural rhythms familiar to me as a reader of Alice Hoffman or Robin McKinley. Whatever richness this novel has for other readers, I could not reach it, and instead struggled to continue reading.

However, as I read, I did come to enjoy the relationship between Kaisa and Ash. I'll be honest, I'm straight up Team Kaisa, all the way. The strong, silent type, capable and determined... AND a woman??! Sign me up! Lo builds magnetism between these two characters solely through quiet moments, stolen afternoons, and lovely conversations, and it hooked me enough to get past the language and truly care about their story.

And then I came to the end, happy, but also with returned disappointment.

There was some great worldbuilding in Ash that never quite followed through on itself. Some background plot points that didn't get resolved. Ash's world is one on the edge of great change. The older, traditional religion, based on faerie magic, is disappearing. Lo spends a great deal of time describing this religion, re-telling the old tales through Ash's fascination with them, the rituals and rites of the greenwitches, but it never goes anywhere. By the end, we don't learn where magic has gone or why faeries no longer involve themselves in the mortal realm. I invested in that worldbuilding and found myself at the happily ever after, holding on to ragged threads of nothing.

Perhaps more integral to my enjoyment of the story is that the threat of faerie is often implied, but never shown. Sidhean is harsh and even a little cruel-- but nothing happens. By the end of the story, I was left wondering just what was so terrible. Other than Sidhean's dire warnings to Ash about making bargains with faeries, I read and read and reached the end, never feeling that she was truly in any danger. That lack of action, in a way, kind of unravels the whole plot. Ash's choice didn't feel quite so difficult to me, or her bravery and courage in choosing quite so triumphant, when the only thing she faced was frightening stories and empty words.

So, three stars for the portrayal of Kaisa and Ash's relationship, their characterization, and their (spoiler alert!) happy ending. Minus two stars for not following through on the action the plot promised or the carefully crafted worldbuilding.
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