Review: Ash

(Cross-posted from We Read to Seek a Great Perhaps)

Ash book coverAsh
by Malinda Lo
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2009
ISBN 9780316040099
Pages: 264
Ages: YA
Lexile: 1050L
Awards: Andre Norton Award Nominee, William C. Morris YA Award Finalist, Kirkus Best Young Adult Novel, Lambda Literary Award Finalist

Everyone loves a Cinderella story, even (or especially) sports fans who never acquainted themselves with the Brothers Grimm. It’s an ancient tale, with early versions traceable as far back as the 1st century BC, and variations appearing in different cultures including Ancient Egypt, China, the Philippines, the Arab nations, and your usual line-up of European peoples. Today, the Cinderella theme shows up again and again in movies, television, sports legacies, and of course books.

Malinda Lo has unwoven the Cinderella story and re-knit it into the somberly beautiful Ash. Ash, or Aisling, is the requisite girl orphaned and left in the care of her cruel stepmother and thoughtless stepsisters. In this telling, Ash’s parents illustrated the transition between the older pagan beliefs of their land (magic and fairies, in which her mother believed) and the new scientific beliefs moving in (her father’s beliefs). Ash is caught in the rift, wondering why her parents loved each other so much but were unable to see eye to eye about the nature of their world.

Ash succumbs to a natural grief and denial after her mother’s death; the supernatural comes in to play when she tries to slip away with the fairies’ Wild Hunt in order to rejoin her mother beyond the veil. One of the fairies turns her back, though, and becomes a constant haunting presence in her dreams. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that there is some strange bond between the fairy, Sidhean (pronounced sheen), and Ash. Later, he will help Ash in the same way that Cinderella’s fairy godmother helped her. All the while, Ash begs Sidhean to take her away with him, to stay with her and take her away from the painful life she lives.

The plot breaks away from the familiar story with the introduction of the King’s Huntress, an office held by a series of women whose clothing, mannerisms, and relationships stand in stark contrast to the feminine finery of other women in the kingdom. As Ash reaches her late teens, she meets Kaisa (KY-suh), the King’s Huntress, and is fascinated. It’s a gently drawn fascination – is Ash envious of her freedom and confidence? Desirous of a friend and confidante? Admiring of a strong and kind female role model?

Ultimately, as familiar Cinderella plot points drip beautifully through Lo’s filter, the situation crystallizes. Ash is infatuated with Sidhean and with the idea of regaining what she has lost – or at least, of losing the pain. And just as Ash has within her grasp the power to join Sidhean forever, she discovers that she has a reason to live and love in the world of the living. It’s certainly true that this is, as fairy tale retellings go, a lesbian retelling – but it isn’t a (cue exaggerated broadcaster voice) “gay book”. It’s a story about the complexities of love, the process of navigating grief, and that all-important choice between holding on to the past and embracing the future.

This book hit all the right chords for me. I’m nuts for fairy tales, so it really had me at “retelling of Cinderella”. I loved the Irish names. I loved the idea of the King’s Huntress, the humanization of Sidhean, the light hand Lo has as she paints what turns out to be an intricate layer of symbolism. And after reading some considerably more heavy-handed approaches in LGBTQ literature, I loved that Lo didn’t make this a book about lesbianism. This is what I hoped to find: a book with characters that we care about, that we respect and root for, who incidentally happen to not be straight.

This is one of the books I checked out from the library that I’ll be looking to purchase – maybe a copy for home, too – and I’ll be looking for more books by Lo in the future. Apparently there’s a forthcoming book set in the same universe, about new characters, including some who are lesbian; maybe I’ll be able to review it in a 2011 LGBTQ book club! I enjoyed browsing her website, particularly her four-part article about avoiding LGBTQ stereotypes when writing YA fiction (link goes to part 1).

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