With her parents both gone, Ash finds herself a servant in the house of her ruthless stepmother and there seems no hope of finding happiness again.
But Ash is unaware of her mother’s legacy, and that it will lead her to a magical place. A place where love, identity and belonging are all waiting….
For as long as I can remember when asked what my favourite fairytale was, I’d answer with Cinderella. The magic, the ‘against the odds’-ness, the romance and the way the stepsisters get their just desserts in the end, I was enchanted by all of it. All of these elements and more were present in Malinda Lo’s Ash, a beautiful retelling of Cinderella. I love (retold) fairy tales and Ash is one of the better ones I’ve read recently. In this version of Cinderella’s story, there is no pumpkin, no singing animals and no bippity-boppity-boo. This is not the Disneyfied version of Perrault’s tale, but far closer to the much scarier and more sinister version as recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Which makes it all the better in my opinion; a good fairytale should be a little scary, otherwise happily ever after is far less cathartic than it should be and the morality of the tale would be lost.
The way the fairy were worked in was cool; these are the true Sidhe, beautiful, dangerous and treacherous creatures better avoided than sought out. Sidhean is both sinister and comforting in his care for Ash. To me he remained a cypher to the end, mostly because I couldn’t decide whether to trust him or not. Ms Lo shows the more vicious side of his nature in flashes, but these flashes give the impression that violence simmers very shallowly underneath the surface of his outwardly cool facade. At the same time, he genuinely seems to care for Ash and is quite protective of her. Wary though I was of the character, I did like him and found him sympathetic.
Less sympathetic, or rather altogether repugnant, are Ash’s stepmother and eldest stepsister. It was hard to find redeeming qualities about them, which made them seem rather flat, the stepmother more so than the sister; they had to make Ash’s life awful and that is what they did. Ash’s youngest stepsister, Clara, at least is somewhat redeemed in the later part of the book, when she starts showing some spirit and shows Ash some kindness. I liked this, as it showed that she is as much a victim as Ash is, albeit in a far different manner.
The true stars of the novel are Ash and Kaisa though, beyond the shadow of a doubt. Ash is a strong character, who retains her spirit, despite of her grief for her parents and the way her stepmother treats her. I love how she almost dares the Fairy to take her, Sidhean calls her reckless because of it, but to me it seemed like that was the only way she could feel alive on her own terms. Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, is independent and shows that women can be powerful in their own right. The romantic triangle with Kaisa and Sidhean is interesting, Ash seems torn between to equally powerful personalities. The symbolism of the fact that Ash mostly sees Sidhean at night when it’s dark and Kaisa mostly during the day, when it’s light, resonated with the fact that the choice between Kaisa and Sidhean is basically a choice between life and death. While I felt sorry for Sidhean, I was rooting for Ash and Kaisa all the way. I loved their slow romance, the way it took until late in the book for Ash to realise that what she feels is love and her conviction that not only is this what she wants, it has given her a way to make it happen.
All the reviews I’ve read, have talked about the fact that Ash deals with a lesbian romance. So I went in with the expectation that this would be a far larger theme in the novel than it actually was. Instead it just is, Ash falls in love with Kaisa and Kaisa falls in love with Ash. And I loved that. I loved that in this world that could just be, without whispers, problems and anxieties beyond does she love me too? It saddens me though, to think that in reality that is the fairytale. Hopefully one day it won’t be.
Ash is a wonderful tale, as enchanting as Perrault and as thrilling as Grimm. Huntress, a prequel to Ash is out next month and I can’t wait to find out whether that is as lovely as its predecessor.