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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ash by Malinda Lo

Title: Ash
Author: Malinda Lo
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: September 1, 2009
Pages: 272

We’re all familiar with the story of Cinderella: a girl, coming of age, breaks free of her unfortunate circumstances and upsets the balance of society to rise above her station and marry not just any Prince, but the Prince; they go on to live Happily Ever After. The fairy tale is part rescue mission, part freedom fight with some political commentary wedged between the two. It’s about choices and desires; dreams and surprises. There’s little initiative on Cinderella’s part--her fairy godmother does all the hard work and saves the day. All Cinderella ever has to do is what she’s told: wear the dress, go to the ball, come back before midnight.

Malinda Lo approaches the fairy tale from a different perspective: what if Cinderella had no desire to secretly compete with her stepsisters for the Prince’s heart? What if there was a different way to escape her circumstances? The solution comes in the form of Sidhean (pronounced SHEEN), a cursed fairy, and Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Alone in the city after her father’s death, Aisling’s curiosity keeps bringing her back to the woods beyond her stepmother’s home where she meets both Sidhean and Kaisa. Sidhean is a strange fairy man who surprises Ash (Aisling’s nickname) by not kidnapping or killing her like the fairies in her fairy tale book. Devastated over her father’s death and miserable at the thought of having to pay back the debts her father left to his widow, Ash struggles with Sidhean to abandon her world altogether and live in the land of fairies. Instead of helping her cross the boundary between the worlds, he grants her wishes. As many as she desires, but with each comes a price. And so Ash uses her wishes to bring her closer to Kaisa, whom she doesn’t yet realize she’s falling in love with.

Having changed the fairy godmother of the fairy tale into a fairy godfather (and cursed, no less), Lo then turns to the fated ball. Except, in this case, Ash doesn’t fall in love with the Prince. Her eyes are solely for Kaisa. Instead of a glass slipper, it’s a fairy cloak that Kaisa clings to, lost in her confusion and despair over Ash’s mysterious disappearance.

Placing the fairy tale in the same medieval, fairy setting with Kings and Queens makes it inordinately difficult to follow the rules of aristocracy and allow Ash--with a notably different sexual inclination--to fall for, much less marry, a Princess. The Prince remains, moved to the periphery with the audience wondering: how then does she become free? This left me grasping at the idea that Cinderella’s happiness at the end isn’t the pageantry of royalty, but the romance she finds. It’s love that saved her. Keeping this in mind, Ash is a uniquely successful re-telling shaped around the idea that ultimately Cinderella’s savior isn’t a magical pumpkin or glass slippers, nor is it a fairy godmother. All of those things provide her the opportunity to prove her worth, without which she would never have been able to fall in love. But it’s love, in the end, that makes the Prince choose her as his bride, thus saving her from a wretched existence at the mercy of her cruel stepmother.

Ash is no different. In that respect, I really appreciated Lo’s ability to reach into the heart of the fairy tale. That Ash fell in love with a non-royal is as insignificant as her falling in love with another young woman, but the distinctions are what make Ash so beautiful against what always threatens to be the same old tale.

That being said, I think the writing is what saved this book from falling just short of marvelous for me. Ash reminded me stylistically of Robin McKinley and I think fans of her writing would enjoy this book a lot. It’s shorter, but very engaging and accessible. As I read, it was easy to imagine the book being read to me, as some writing lends itself quite effortlessly. It read very much like a fairy tale and not just because that’s what it was. My only problem is in Lo’s execution of the romantic relationship between Kaisa and Ash. As much as I wanted to believe in the innocence of Ash discovering her true feelings, her interest in the huntress came off as curious more in the romance involved in being on a horse, on the hunt, left alone in the woods to do as she pleases, than on Kaisa as a woman--as a person. In other words, I felt Ash falling in love with the freedoms Kaia had than with Kaisa herself. As the narrative progressed, Ash’s feelings narrowed and found in Kaisa a like partner, but I was usually disinterested in their interactions together. I won’t deny there was chemistry, but the romantic chemistry felt forced, added at the end as an afterthought--which I know it was not intended to be. What I missed was the courtship between the pages where Kaisa and Ash undoubtedly connected in a way that went further than initial curiosity. I wanted to see more moments that warranted the embarrassed and shy glances between the two of them that persisted past what could be explained away as involuntary reactions to physical attraction.

I’m still thinking it over and love how beautiful everything about this book was--Malinda Lo is an author to watch out for in the future. And maybe I’m being too critical of the romance, too demanding for a book that doesn’t promise to go past a first kiss or show us if Kaisa and Ash lived happily ever after. Maybe Ash is just about Aisling making that first discovery and deciding to pursue a new relationship rather than be solely about the romance. And I think it speaks to Lo’s ability as a writer, that after finishing I’m still focusing on the beauty of the relationship--isn’t that part of what Cinderella is all about?

4 comments:

TJ said...

I had no idea what this one is about, but it's going on my wishlist now.

Erika said...

I think you might like it!

TJ said...

It's in the mail to me as of today! :)

Erika said...

How exciting! I can't wait to see what you think of it. :)

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