Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash Book Cover Ash
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.

Review:

I’m always amazed at how creative authors can be when re-imagining fairytales. I’m still deciding whether Malinda Lo’s new take on Cinderella was really for me, but I can say that I respect her work and acknowledge it as a valuable contribution to the wealth of adaptations already out there.

One of the most interesting ways in which Ash differs from other versions of Cinderella is the absence of a Prince Charming character. Most of the other familiar elements are there – an orphaned girl forced to serve her wicked stepmother, a royal ball, enchanted coachmen, etc. – but the romance has been completely transformed.

Taking the place of our prince are Kaisa, the king’s young huntress, and Sidhean, the fairy who has captivated Ash since her youth. Yes, that’s right; we’ve got ourselves a love triangle, and an LGBT love triangle at that. I know there are readers out there who abhor the very thought of love triangles, but in Ash’s case the relationships are important to the plot. One of Ash’s love interests represents new beginnings, friendship, and the continuation of life after loss, while the other represents the pull of magic and the escape from reality that it provides.

While I like the idea of the Ash love triangle in theory, in practice there’s a bit of a problem: the triangle seems more isosceles than equilateral (am I impressing you with my geometry knowledge right now?). The whole point of a love triangle is for a protagonist to be conflicted in his or her choice between two love interests, and in order for that conflict to be believable those love interests should be closely matched, equally appealing. If one character is incredibly alluring and the other is just so-so, there’s no real tension because the choice between them seems obvious.

This is where I struggled with Ash. One side of the love triangle – Sidhean, the fairy – is great. Sidhean is no flitting, sparkling, pixie-dust-covered fairy, but rather one of the cold, dangerous fey capable of luring you into the woods and dancing you to death. He’s cold and conflicted but also alluring and mysterious, with a draw that’s undeniable.

It is Kaisa’s side of the triangle that falls short. In order for a literary romance to work for me, I need to be able to fall in love – or at least lust – with the love interest, and I had a hard time doing that with a female character. Kaisa is nice enough, but she seems kind of boring and I just wasn’t attracted to her. This lack of interest was a major contributor to why I couldn’t give Ash a higher rating.

Issues with Kaisa aside, I still appreciate the direction Lo has taken with her version of Cinderella. It’s a testament to Lo’s talent that she is able to retain the feeling of a traditional fairy tale even while putting a very unconventional spin on the story by making Ash bisexual. This classical feel is due in large part to Lo’s beautiful descriptions and choice of diction and syntax. The level of detail she provides does slow down the pace of the story, but her writing is undeniably lovely. As an example, here’s a short excerpt:

“When Ash finally fell asleep, she dreamed of the Wood, the tall dark trees, the shaft of sunlight that shone through the canopy to the soft forest floor. She could smell the spicy pine, the dampness of bark after rain, and the exotic fragrance that clung to Sidhean. It was the scent of jasmine, she remembered, and night-blooming roses that had never felt the touch of a human hand.”

Beautiful, no?

Something else I really liked about Ash is that there is a strong undercurrent of magic throughout the story. There are curses and covenants, bewitched dreams and fairy circles, magical rings and an enchanted Wood. This really added to my enjoyment of the story and is much cooler than a one-time conjuring of glass slippers and a ball gown.

It’s funny – now that I’ve written this review and taken the time to really evaluate Lo’s work, I’m realizing that maybe I liked this book more than I originally thought. I’m still disappointed that I wasn’t enthralled by Kaisa, but the originality of the story and the quality of the writing goes a long way to making up for a less-than-perfect love interest.

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