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Book Review: Ash, by Malinda Lo

[Ash] had just begun washing the dishes that were stacked in the sink when there was a knock on the back door… Once again, there was a satchel sitting on the doorstep. This time, it was made of blue velvet tied shut with a fine silver chain; on the ends of the chain dangled sapphire baubles. She picked it up and brought it into her room, where she poured the contents out onto her bed. An ice-blue silk dress flooded out over her patchwork coverlet like a rush of cool water. The bodice was embroidered with hundreds of tiny crystal beads in a complex pattern of flowers, and in the dusky light that came through the window, the bodice shimmered like the scales of a fish. — p. 208

When I heard about Aarti’s Diversiverse Challenge (to read and review a book by an author of color between 9/14 and 9/27), my first thought was “oh, this should be easy. Sure, I’ve read everything that NK Jemisin has put out recently, but I can read something by Nalo Hopkinson, or Nnedi Okorafor, or — didn’t they just put out that new pair of Octavia Butler stories? I’m really anxious to read that!” At that point, I realized that every author who’d sprung to my mind was a black woman, and I decided that for my second review (see my review of Hopkinson’s Sister Mine here), I wanted to challenge myself to read 1) an author from another different ethnic background 2) whose work I was completely unfamiliar with. And so, after nosing around a bit on the We Need Diverse Books Tumblr, I ran across Malinda Lo.

Lo writes young adult fiction, and the “buzz” I could find around her work, both supportive and critical, seemed to center on its positive depiction of lesbian relationships. Ash is framed as “a queer reframing of Cinderella,” and I would agree with that assessment, but I also think that leaving it there sells the book short by a not-insignificant amount.

We meet the title character (Ash is short for Aislinn) at her mother’s graveside. Fairly quickly thereafter, Ash’s father remarries and then dies, and Ash is spirited away to the big city and forced to work as a servant to her stepmother and two stepsisters. There are balls and dresses spun from magic, a fairy benefactor and a highborn love. But this story’s so much more than that, and it’s apparent from the first pages where Ash is watching the local greenwitch do the rites to keep the Fairy Hunt away on her mother’s vulnerable first night in the ground.

Lo does a superb job in this book of weaving the elements of Cinderella into the broader European fairy mythology. From the beginning, we’re immersed in a world of fairy stories, tales of changelings and the dancers who spirit mortals away into the night. There’s also tension between the “country” beliefs of fairies and magic and the “modern” beliefs of the city-dwellers, which include things like bloodletting and other aspects of European medieval science. Ash is caught between the two in a very concrete way, as she finds herself drawn to both the handsome, mysterious fairy Sidhean and the capable King’s Huntress, Kaisa. As the plot winds along and Ash’s life with her stepmother and stepsisters becomes more miserable, she needs to decide where her loyalties should lie.

I liked many things about this book. Lo doesn’t problematize same-sex desires or relationships; it’s taken as a matter of course that Ash is in love with the Huntress, just as her stepsister wants to marry the prince. I found this refreshing, especially in a quasi-medieval-European setting. The fact that the leader of the King’s Hunt is a woman also isn’t a plot point, and although many of the female characters are preoccupied with marrying well so that they won’t have to worry about money, there are also many women who are independent and self-supporting.

I was embarrassed to catch myself feeling surprised that Lo, as a Chinese-American author, had chosen to adapt a European fairy tale and keep it in a basically-European setting; it goes to show that even when I’m making a conscious effort to read more diversely I still have to work to get out from under my own preconceptions about what different types of authors write. Lo does a beautiful job laying out the setting in the early chapters, and it feels very well-developed; I particularly enjoyed the many fairy tales threaded through the narrative, some of which seem based on traditional tales I was familiar with while others seemed likely to have been invented for the story.

I don’t read a lot of YA fiction, and this book did include some of the elements that tend to make me shy away from the genre (characters’ motivations being telegraphed from very early on, for instance), but the supporting characters in particular are more complex than I’ve seen in other YA books. Other reviewers seemed to approach this book with expectations that there’d be more romantic/sexual interactions between characters appearing on the page, but I thought the level we saw (a few chaste kisses, some descriptions of Ash’s physical reactions and then a cutaway) worked well and fit with the style of the writing. I was also a little surprised when reading other reviews to see that many readers didn’t know that Ash and Kaisa were supposed to be love interests until the very end of the book: to me, this was clear from early on, but I also went in with the framing of the book as “a lesbian Cinderella story.” I can’t say how I would have read the relationship without that information.

I found this book a very quick read — I literally read it in about an evening. I would recommend it to fans of YA, fairy tale adaptations and romance.

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6 Comments

  1. I’ve only read one review of this book and I either missed that it featured a lesbian relationship or the reviewer failed to mention it. While I agree that we shouldn’t make lesbian-sex/relationships the center of all our focus on a book, I do think it should be mentioned. We should be able to talk about these things.

    I don’t normally read YA either but I’m curious about Ash.

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    • I completely agree! The fact that the book does something groundbreaking definitely seems like it’s worth mentioning in a review…

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  2. aartichapati

     /  September 26, 2014

    “I was embarrassed to catch myself feeling surprised that Lo, as a Chinese-American author, had chosen to adapt a European fairy tale and keep it in a basically-European setting; it goes to show that even when I’m making a conscious effort to read more diversely I still have to work to get out from under my own preconceptions about what different types of authors write. ” – I struggle with this a lot, too, and always have to call myself out on whether I am being unfair. For example, I generally assume POC authors write about POC characters. Not the case. And that, if a character is POC, that it should somehow be important to the plot. Again not the case. It’s a journey!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    • I can’t like this comment enough! Husband and I had a long conversation with friends this weekend about how increasing representation includes both writing more stories where the fact of a character’s having an underrepresented identity is central AND writing more stories where underrepresented identities are there-but-not-hugely-commented on. They’re both progress 🙂

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  3. tuulenhaiven

     /  September 30, 2014

    This sounds so good! I love retellings of fairy tales.

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  1. Diversiverse 2015: I’m doing it, and you should too! | Sociologist Novelist

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