Book Review: Ash (Lo)

March 6, 2010

From a distance, I thought she was a puff of ash. Clever.

I try to judge books by their characters and story rather than blunt subject matter, but when I heard that someone had written a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, I couldn’t help my gut reaction: Yes! You go, Malinda Lo!

As a brief “public service announcement” (as Lo herself calls it on her blog): yes, I myself am gay, and I’ve been openly so since the day I figured it out. I am also a lover of fairy-tales and their retellings, especially those by Robin McKinley and Donna Jo Napoli, Shannon Hale, Gale Carson Levine, and others like them. Their romances, I might note, are straight. I like to read about love between men and women, but there’s a certain thrill to picking up a romance that speaks to me in a highly personal way. Part of what appeals to us as readers in fairy-tales is the understanding that yes, you too can have a happy ending. Love really can conquer all. Ash sends a much-needed message to young adults and all of its readers, I feel: Happy endings aren’t reserved for those who want “traditional” love. Love conquers all no matter what form it takes, and love isn’t wrong.

At the same time, though, this isn’t a book where the author beats you over the head with “OMG guys look at me I’m writing about lesbians!” Lo has mentioned in the teaser video for Ash that the fact that Ash falls in love with a woman is secondary to fact that she falls in love,  and says elsewhere on her website that originally, she did fall in love with the prince. It was only upon rereading her own manuscript that Lo realized, at the prompting of a friend, that it wonted for romance with Kaisa.

Okay, so /rant. On to judging the book by its characters and story.

Since this is a retelling of Cinderella, some elements are to be expected: the dead mother and cruel stepmother, the father that is often absent and soon dies as well. Aisling, called Ash, (which I felt was a delightful transformation of the impetus for “cinder” names) has two stepsisters, the younger of whom is traditionally kinder to her, and she is the sole hardworking servant of the household.

In this story, however, there are a few key differences beyond the LGBT twist. Instead of a fairy godmother, Ash has Sidhean, a mysterious fae man who warns her of the danger of his realm even as he presents a promise to steal her away. Ash, still grieving for her mother and downtrodden by her life as a slave, wishes to be stolen away by the faeries, tales of whom she has always loved. This changes when she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.

Without revealing too much about the book, it’s a wonderful retelling which contains elements of both the Perrault and Grimm’s versions, but is still entirely original. I believe that Ash’s original desire to be stolen away by the fairies is an allegory for something which real teens feel far too often: suicidal thoughts, and that this makes her finding Kaisa as a reason to live again that much more powerful. Neither of the young women is masculine or “butch,” and though Kaisa is the picture of a strong, confident young woman, Ash herself is somewhat submissive. I credited this to a quiet nature and to her last several years spent being trod on. All the same, even as Kaisa rescues Ash from her misery, in the very end the young heroine must save herself from Sidhean’s entanglement.

The ending itself was somewhat confusing, but for the sake of the rest of the story I’m willing to go along with it on the premise that Ash herself isn’t quite sure what happened. Perhaps someday (yeah, right) I’ll have a chance to speak to Malinda Lo and see how she defends it. Four stars.