Ash: A promising and creative debut

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Malinda Lo AshAsh by Malinda Lo

Malinda Lo combines several highly creative ideas in her debut novel, Ash. We all know the tale of Cinderella, but it’s never been told quite like this. Cinderella (here called Aisling, Ash for short) falls for a young woman instead of the prince. And the fairy who helps Ash break free of her stepmother is no rosy-cheeked godmother, but a coldly beautiful fairy lord right out of the older, darker legends of the fey folk, and he demands a steep price for his aid. On paper, I love everything about this concept, and I also liked Lo’s writing:

She walked this way for a long time, but the light did not change; it seemed to always be morning. The sun continued its bright blinking overhead, and when shafts of golden light came through the leafy canopy, dust motes hung in the air, glittering as bright as diamonds. It was an enchantment, she was sure. This wood was so gentle in comparison to the dark, thick forests near Rook Hill. There, the evergreens were so tall and so old she could not see the tops of them; here, oak and birch branches broke the sky into lacy filigrees of light green, exposing the tender blue above.

The major conflict is an intriguing one. Ash isn’t just choosing between two particular suitors. Her attraction to the fairy lord, Sidhean, is based largely on the oblivion he can give her. In her grief for her mother, Ash thinks this is what she wants. Kaisa, the King’s Huntress who becomes her other love interest, represents life in all its vivid joys and pains.

Unfortunately, Ash never quite grabbed me. Part of the problem is that it just takes a long time for the plot to get rolling. For much of the first half of the book, Ash spends most of her time brooding and/or wandering in the woods. While crucial plot points are set up during this time, they don’t come to fruition until much later. Lo’s descriptions of the woods are beautiful, but I grew impatient with the cycle of depression — wandering — depression — wandering…

Then there’s a part of me that wonders why this story needed, well, Cinderella. Maybe if Ash were choosing between the Huntress and the prince, or if Sidhean himself were the prince and Ash fled from a fairy ball rather than a human one, or if an eligible princess held a ball to meet potential husbands and found Ash instead, the Cinderella story would fit better. As it is, the prince/ball/midnight stuff feels a little tacked on. The prince is never in the running for Ash’s affections, and almost doesn’t need to be here at all.

And some of the less satisfying aspects of the plot occur when Lo is trying to fit the Cinderella story and her own story together. For example, Ash finds a fairy path through the forest that takes her back, in less than a day’s journey, to her home village, where I can think of at least two people who would have taken her in. Sidhean sends her back to her stepmother’s house every time she makes the trip, ostensibly because she’s breaking fairy rules, but also because this is a Cinderella story and she can’t escape her stepmother or else it’ll be a different story. So, Ash ends up staying there, long after it starts seeming out of character.

Then again, Malinda Lo states on her website that she started with a more standard Cinderella story and only later realized her heroine was a lesbian, so I’m probably off-base in complaining about the Cinderella elements.

All of my complaints aside, Ash is a promising and creative debut with a lot of great things going for it. I will definitely look for later books by Malinda Lo in the future.

Ash — (2009) Young adult. Publisher: Cinderella retold. 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.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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