A good re-telling honours the original, while adding something new and unexpected. Enter Ash, a light new look at Cinderella, with an LGBT twist.
Ash just lost her mother, a greenwitch in a kingdom that no longer believes in magic. Her father tries to comfort Ash and thinks a new mother will help. He remarries Lady Isobel then mysteriously falls ill and dies, leaving Ash to the mercy of her stepmother. Lady Isobel moves the family back to her own estate, takes advantage of Ash’s orphaned state and puts her to work.
Ash takes solace in a book of fairy tales that was a gift from her father, reading them nightly by the warm kitchen hearth. She dreams of the day that fairies will take her away, hoping the stories are more than just tales told to children. And they are real. Sidhean, an old and powerful fairy, stakes a claim for Ash, watches out for her and protects her.
On a day in the woods, escaping her stepmother for a brief period, Ash meets the King’s Huntress, Kaisa. And Ash begins to see that her heart did not die with her mother. But she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love. She must choose between Sidhean and oblivion, and Kaisa and life.
I’m a bit torn about this story. On one hand, what a lovely new way to write Cinderella. On the other, I am not sure if the fairy tale is needed for the story.
So, the good:
Ash is a lovely character. She is romantic and heartbroken, she believes in the old ways of magic and feels her mother’s spirit around her. She cannot move on from her grief because she is unsure whether her mother is resting in peace. Sidhean becomes a powerful addiction for her, even as she becomes the same for him. He can offer her oblivion and maybe a chance to reunite with her mother.
Kaisa represents something more powerful than death. She is love and all the joy and agony that goes with it. She is kindhearted and compassionate and patient and recognizes Ash’s need to come to terms with her feelings more slowly.
The relationship between the two girls is natural and heartwarming. The initial meeting, the casual time spent getting to know one another, the bond that they form even when Ash cannot put a name to it, is beautifully written. I love that two women forming a relationship is not unusual or shocking.
And the world-building is fabulous. The magic of the Woods is clear and lyrical, and author Malinda Lo paints gorgeous pictures with her prose. As Ash wanders through the pathways, the reader can see the sun playing through the trees and sparkling off the stream, hearing the silence.
The not-quite-as-good (but not bad):
The plot moves very slowly, and it took awhile to grab me. The first half of the book is a cycle of sadness and escaping into the Wood, and even though there are many plot points that emerge during this time, it isn’t until the latter half of the story that they become clear, and the pacing picks up.
Sidhean. Unfortunately, I never really care about him, or his motivations, because I don’t find his character fully developed. With the choice Ash is facing, he should be a stronger presence. On the other hand, it was nice that his near invisibility gave more importance and weight to Kaisa and Ash’s relationship, even as I wondered who she would choose.
Speaking of irrelevant. The Prince. This is where the Cinderella story as a basis for the novel stumbles. He didn’t add to the story at all. Ash is never choosing between the Huntress and the Prince – she is oblivious to him. The masque ball at the end of the book feels a bit tacked on, as if to make the story fit better.
A few other factors make the Cinderella story feel a bit forced in places. Ash is in tune with the magic of the Woods and manages to find her way home through them in less than a day – a trip that took her a week on the road with her stepmother. And Sidhean finds her and takes her back to her stepmother’s house. But she was raised and loved in her Village – someone would have sheltered her, and she could have escaped her drudgery. So in order for Cinderella to work, Ash must return. But doing so didn’t really fit with her personality.
So. While I have listed a number of elements that don’t work for me in the story, I also cannot praise the book enough. My criticisms aside, it is a beautifully written debut novel, with lyrical prose and wonderful imagery. And I love that Ash does not rely on a prince for her happiness, but finds it herself, and shares it with a woman. It is a hard book to put down.
Ash was published September 1st, 2009 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.