Ash by Malinda Lo

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Welcome back to Fairy Tale Friday!  It’s been a while!  My work schedule was really hectic all last month.  Things have slowed down now, which hopefully means I’ll get back to consistently posting these!

Ash has been on my TBR for ages, and I’m so glad I got to pick it up.  A special thanks to the-forest-library since I won this book in her giveaway!   As you can probably tell, this is another retelling of “Cinderella.”

My Rating: 4 stars

Warning: Contains spoilers

As a Retelling:

When compared with Princess of GlassAsh is in some ways more of a straight retelling.  Lo utilizes the traditional step-family setup we’re familiar with from the most prominent versions of the fairy tale.  However, like Jessica Day George’s Ellen, Ash does not end up with the prince at the end.  In fact, the prince isn’t even one of Ash’s love interests.  Instead, we have Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, and Sidhean, a mysterious fairy.

Lo draws on both the Grimm version of the story and the Perrault version.  The mother’s grave plays a major part in the book, just as it does in the German variant of the tale.  In that version, Cinderella spends a large amount of time crying at her mother’s grave and plants a hazel tree there.  A bird that perches there throws down the gowns and slippers she wears to the festivals.  In Ash, it is at her mother’s grave that Ash meets Sidhean.  The magic itself is not tied with the grave though.  For that, Lo uses the fairy helper from Perrault’s tale; it is Sidhean who helps her go to the royal hunt and the ball by providing her with clothes and ensuring she won’t be recognized.

Unlike the majority of “Cinderella” retellings, footwear does not play a role in this story.  This is probably Lo’s biggest deviation from the fairy tale; almost every variation of the tale involves some kind of beautiful shoes, whether it is Perrault’s glass slippers, the golden slippers that appear in several versions, or the multi-colored shoes in the Irish tale “Fair, Brown, and Trembling.”  As a replacement for the lost slipper, Ash has a silver cloak given to her by Sidhean.  Ash leaves it behind after taking it off to dance with Kaisa at the Yule ball.  However, there is no equivalent to the shoe fitting.  In fact, Kaisa does not seek Ash out after she leaves the ball; it is the other way around.  After going to see Sidhean one last time, Ash returns to the palace to find Kaisa, who has kept the cloak for her.

Kaisa is, of course, another of the larger deviations in this book.  She is essentially placed into the role the prince usually fills.  Though the prince does exist in this story, he is really a non-character.  Kaisa, unlike the usual love interest for Cinderella, is not royalty, though she is connected with royalty through her position as the King’s Huntress.  Her occupation provides a way for Lo to avoid insta-love by developing the relationship.  They meet in the forest and become friends first before starting to develop romantic feelings for each other.  Kaisa is actually the one to invite Ash to the royal hunt, which is this story’s equivalent to the first ball, and she is never in doubt of Ash’s identity through any of the events.

Though Lo does use the step-family setup found in many versions of the story, she fleshes out the characters and provides reasons for their ill treatment of Ash.  Not long after marrying Lady Isobel, Ash’s father becomes ill and dies, leaving nothing but a pile of debts.  Ash is forced to do the housework as a way to pay Lady Isobel back for the lost money, a situation very similar to that of Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, which follows the “Cinderella” structure.  Though many modern interpretations of the story kill off the father, he is alive in most older versions of the tale and simply allows his new wife to treat his daughter terribly.  Some variants say it is because he is entirely under his wife’s control, others don’t give any explanation.  It’s easy to see why modern audiences prefer for the father to die; the idea of a father refusing to protect his daughter like that is difficult to stomach.

The two stepsisters, Ana and Clara, are given personalities and motivations.  Ana is desperate to get married since, it’s the best way for her to live a comfortable life due to their society and her circumstances.  She’s resentful of Ash, whose father made her life more difficult by putting the family in debt, and therefore usually cruel.  However, we do get one nice scene between the two that shows how desperate Ana is due to her circumstances and that she could be a nicer person if things were different.  Clara, on the other hand, is actually fairly pleasant and on good terms with Ash.  She doesn’t completely adhere to her sister’s mindset, but she doesn’t see any other options.  She and Ash have several conversations the the subject and we as readers are left with some hope that Clara might find her own way in the world.

My Thoughts:

I’m so glad I finally read this book.  Lo does such a wonderful job retelling the story and her writing is beautiful.  And, as I mentioned in my post on Girls Made of Snow and Glass, I am always here for LGBT+ fairy tale retellings!  Bisexual Cinderella?  Yes please!  I also loved the way Lo handles the love triangle, which is something I’m usually not fond of.  For a while I thought Sidhean was going to end up being the antagonist and would try to keep Ash and Kaisa apart.  I was so happy that’s not what happens!  Lo resolves it in a way that satisfied me and doesn’t downplay Ash’s feelings for either of her love interests.

I really appreciated how character driven this book is.  There aren’t a huge amount of exciting events; there are the hunt and the two balls, but other than that it is mostly quiet moments focused on Ash’s grief over the loss of her mother and her feelings for Kaisa and Sidhean.  As a result, I felt I really knew Ash and I cared a great deal about her by the end.  It’s a quieter kind of book, and I thought that worked really well for the story.

If I had to make one complaint, it would be that I wanted it to be longer!  The paperback copy I have is just over 250 pages.  I think it could have done with maybe 100 more pages.  I wanted more interactions between Ash and her stepsisters to further delve into their relationships.  And I especially think the resolution to Ash and Sidhean’s relationship could have been drawn out longer.  It’s wonderful the way it is, but I really just wanted to spend more time in this world and with these characters.

Other Reading Recommendations:

The starred titles are ones I have read myself.  The others are ones I want to read and may end up being future Fairy Tale Friday books.  To keep the list from getting too long, I’m limiting it to four that I’ve read and four that I haven’t.  This is the only novel length fairy tale retelling by Lo, but she has several other books that sound great.

Other Retellings of “Cinderella”:

More Books by Malinda Lo:

About the Fairy Tale:

This review is also posted on aliteraryprincess.tumblr.com

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