Book Review: Ash, Malinda Lo (2009)

April 25th, 2014 12:08 pm by Kelly Garbato

A Magical & Subversive Retelling of ‘Cinderella’

four out of five stars

Twelve-year-old Aisling – Ash for short – is having the worst year imaginable. In midsummer, her beloved mother Elinor died suddenly and mysteriously; and, before the last of autumn’s leaves turned brown and blanketed the ground, her merchant father William had remarried. To give Ash a mother, he said.

To the marriage, Lady Isobel Quinn brings two daughters: twelve-year-old Ana and her ten-year-old sister Clara. From the more “cultured” town of West Riding – located just a stone’s throw from the Royal City – Lady Isobel has grand designs for her daughters: they are to marry well and become gentlewomen like their mother. The wild Ash, with her love of books, fascination with fairy tales and magic, and still-fresh grief for Elinor, isn’t much more than a minor annoyance to her new stepmother. She provides neither comfort nor sympathy to the grieving child.

Shortly after the marriage, William falls sick; rather than allow “superstitious” greenwitch Maire Solanya attend to him, Lady Isobel uproots the family and moves them from Ash’s home in Rook Hill to the Quinn House. William dies just two weeks later, and Lady Isobel wastes little time in claiming Ash as a servant – to pay off her father’s (alleged) debts. (I love how Lady Isobel recounts bitterly to Ash how her father spent Lady Isobel’s money to prop up his failing business, while openly admitting that she married William for his money. Hypocrite much?) From orphan to slave in less than six months.

For the next six years, Ash spends her days stoking the fires; toiling in the garden; scrubbing the floors; washing and mending the laundry; and tending to her cruel stepmother and husband-hungry stepsisters. Psychological abuse is a daily occurrence, and impertinence is met with physical violence. The one day Ash tries to run away, she is locked in the cellar for months, allowed out only when supervised to perform her chores.

Ash’s only escape is the Wood, the one place where magic still lives. When she was thirteen, Ash stumbled upon an enchanted path that led her back to her home in Rook Hill – and her mother’s grave, still fresh then. There she met Sidhead, a beautiful fairy; and, though she begged him take her to his world, he returned her to the Quinn House instead: it’s “not time yet.” During the next five years of her indentured servitude to Lady Isobel, Ash escapes to the Wood whenever she can. Sometimes Sidhean meets her, and they walk the forest paths together. Though he occasionally acts as her protector, Sidhean is not entirely a kindly fairy godfather: his designs on Ash are much more sinister and self-serving.

During her travels in the Wood, Ash also meets and befriends Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Like many villages, Royal City has a hunting party; but because it is the King’s, it’s much grander than any other. Though many of the hunters are men, the party is led by a woman: always a woman.

This year, Prince Aidan – newly returned from war and ready to choose a bride – will be joining the opening hunt, so it’s to be an even more majestic and opulent affair than ever. Kaisa invites Ash to the hunt, and the Yule ball after that; in order to escape her stepmother’s notice, she asks for two favors from Sidhean, which she must pay for dearly.

Malindo Lo’s Ash is a retelling of Cinderella that’s as subversive as it is magical. Ash differs from Cinderella in two key ways: Sidhean isn’t your average fairy godmother. (In fact, fairies are integral to the story, and Lo spends the first half of the book explaining fairy society, and its changing role in human life.) And Prince Aidan’s quest for a bride takes a backseat to Ash’s own budding feelings for Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.

With Ash, Kaisa, and Sidhean, Lo introduces a “queered” love triangle that’s neither boring nor contrived – no small feat considering the popularity of love triangles in the YA genre. Refreshingly, Prince Charming has no place in this romance, as his search for a broodmare is eclipsed by Ash’s opposing friendships with Kaisa and Sidhean, and her eventual sexual awakening. (Parents, take note: Ash is rated PG-13 at worst, with zero sex and just a few rather tame kisses.)

There are some wonderful feminist elements in the story as well, most notably in the conflict between “old world” superstitions – personified by greenwitches, most of whom are women – and more cultured “philosophers” (all of them men), which at times reads as a code for organized religion. This battle is played out on William’s body: while Maire Solanya advises (begs) Lady Isobel to let her treat him with herbs and potions, Isobel elects to take him to the more urban town of West Riding, where he can be properly treated (read: bled) by physicians. William’s own beliefs – which stand in stark contrast to those of wife Elinor (who was at one time an apprentice to Maire Solanya) and daughter Ash, who inherited a little bit of the old magic from her mother – prove to be his downfall.

The framing of hunting as a feminist endeavor (as evidenced by the female Huntresses traditionally chosen to lead mixed-gender hunting parties) is a little more difficult to swallow. Lo appears to anticipate her target audience’s likely ambivalence towards a heroine who kills sentient creatures for fun and sport (BAMBI!) – so she instills in Kaisa a sense of remorse and sorrow for the nonhumans she’s paid to hunt down and slay. Kaisa justifies her actions with a trite line about the circle of life – never mind that, in nature, predators single out the old, the young, and the weak – not the healthiest animals in the prime of life. (In the opening season hunt, an entire team of hunters, trackers, and hounds spends the day chasing down a buck until he collapses from exhaustion.) But a baby’s head just wouldn’t look as majestic hanging above the King’s throne now, would it?

Also interesting is the Fairy Hunt, which plays out alongside the King’s Hunt. Just as the human hunters (and their benefactors) sustain themselves on the meat of those animals they killed, the fairies feed off the souls of enchanted humans. Certainly, we’re meant to mourn the humans used and consumed by the fairies; but what of the nonhumans similarly exploited during the human hunts?

Ash tells Kaisa that most fairy tales are dark and frightening because they’re meant to impart an important life lesson: “Do not be seduced by false glamour; do not shirk your duties; do not wander off alone into the Wood at night.” Breaking with this tradition, Ash is an uplifting story about the transformative power of love.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply