by Malinda Lo
In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.
Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.
TW: I will be discussing suicide in this review
When it comes to f/f fantasy Ash is something of a classic, and it’s been on my TBR for a long time now. Though I’d seen quite a lot of fairly beige reviews I was never going to say no to a dark f/f retelling of Cinderella, especially not one written by an own voices poc author.
Alas, this one wasn’t quite for me.
Parts of the writing in Ash are gorgeous, it’s one of those books where I can tell the author’s heart and soul went into writing it and I can so appreciate that from an author who’s said she never saw herself represented in media when she was growing up. This book doesn’t treat same-sex relationships as anything remotely strange, in fact it’s Ash’s relationship with the fairy Sidhean that is described as ‘queer’ in this story, and Ash’s romance with the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, is very sweet.
My biggest problem with Ash is that I think it easily could have been a short story. In fact it could have been a brilliant short story. Not enough happened in my mind to justify an entire novel, because Ash is less a retelling and more just a different version of Cinderella, and this would be more compelling if we got to know anyone or anything even remotely well.
Why is Ash’s stepmother so horrible? Who knows? After Ash’s father dies she claims he’s left them all in debt, which is why Ash is forced to work as their maid, but she never presents any evidence for this and she wasn’t particularly nice to Ash before he died either. There’s an attempt to make the older stepsister more human when she claims she has to throw herself at men, even when they’re twice her age, because she needs to marry well to stop her family from living in the gutter. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a young girl, but it’s never explored well enough and Ash continues to think she’s better than her which really doesn’t help matters along. I’d’ve loved to see the two of them become tentative allies rather than just be horrid to each other because that’s what Cinderella and her stepsisters do.
Parts of Ash are done really well. Ash’s mother raised her on stories of fairies, and after she suddenly dies Ash is convinced that if the fairies took her they’d take her back to her mother. She ends up befriending a fairy, Sidhean, and the two of them develop a strange, dark bond with Ash hoping that one day he’ll take her away from the mortal world. I think Ash’s fascination with the fairies actually has this undercurrent of Ash wanting to commit suicide to be with her parents, there’s nothing that makes her want to stay in the mortal world anymore, and it was an aspect of the story I liked a lot. It’s essentially Ash’s relationship with Kaisa that makes her excited about life again.
Cinderella stories so often feature a plucky girl at their centre who’s just going to keep her head down forever and get on with her life, but Ash is angry that she’s been left in this situation and she does answer back to her stepmother and her stepsisters when they ask impossible things of her. It was nice to see a Cinderella character fight back in these small ways, and also to see her genuinely struggling to want to get up each day when her whole world is falling apart around her.
Unfortunately, other than that grief, I didn’t get to know Ash at all and I ended up finding her quite irritating. There were simply too many scenes of her wandering through the woods and dreaming of being with the fairies – to the point where I wish she’d just go and be with the fairies, because I already got the point that she’s unhappy – and the story didn’t really perk up until Kaisa enters the picture.
Kaisa I really liked. Out of all the characters in Ash, Kaisa is the one who felt most like an original character to me rather than a fairy tale cut-out. My problem with Kaisa is that while I could understand why Ash falls in love with her – she takes an interest in Ash and teaches her to ride and visits her when she’s alone – I couldn’t really understand why Kaisa falls in love with Ash. At some point Kaisa mentions that Ash keeps being put in her path so clearly the two of them are supposed to get to know one another, but that’s about it. I didn’t feel any real chemistry between them which was a shame.
I love the ideas behind Ash, it’s a wonderful concept, but the characters are flat, the world-building doesn’t really exist and the plot is wrapped up far too quickly and easily after chapters and chapters of Ash wandering through the forest alone. I am still glad I read it, though, and I’d be interested in checking out more of Lo’s stuff in future.