Review: Ash, Malinda Lo (2009)

A lesbian retelling of Cinderella. The Cinderella components are all pretty straightforward at first: dead mother, wicked stepmother and stepsisters, dead father, drastic change in circumstances. The fairies, in this case, are British-style — otherworldly long-lived beings who trap humans when they wander to the wrong part of the forest — which added an enjoyably creepy tone. One of them, Sidhean, takes a liking to Ash, and becomes a friend and “fairy godfather” of sorts… but of course there’s a price. And then there’s the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, whom Ash meets in the woods and feels drawn to. (You see where this is going.)

The writing is lovely, I suppose, but I was disappointed by this book (which everyone else on the internet loves, so my opinion shouldn’t necessarily dissuade you from reading it). None of the characters felt real. The entire time I felt like I was reading through wavy glass or something — the images were beautiful, but kept at a distance, not solid.

In this world homosexuality is unquestioned (at least for women… I don’t remember any gay male couples mentioned) — that felt slightly off given the very traditional medieval fantasy trappings of the rest of the world, but okay. It was nice to read a lesbian YA fantasy in which the relationship gets to proceed like any hetero romance. And it set up a good progression from Sidhean, the otherworldly lover of her childhood who represents escape, to Kaisa, the grounded adult relationship who helps Ash want to live in reality.

But the novel brought up so many other issues that could have been fascinating but were never really explored. The story starts with a conflict between the old ways (“greenwitch” magic) and new science. Ash’s mother believes in the old magic, while her father doesn’t; it’s their major fight, and it’s implied that both died because the town greenwitch wasn’t allowed to care for them her way. The scientific medical establishment has only progressed as far as leeches, so I suppose this isn’t a surprise — but that eliminates any interesting conflict between the two ways of life. We know that fairies exist, so we know that magic works; we know that medical science is dumb because ha ha, leeches. The former is represented by Ash’s beloved mother; the latter by her abusive stepmother. It’s too easy.

And then there are the class issues. The stepmother tells Ash that her father left a lot of debt, and it’s Ash’s responsibility to work it off. She cooks, she cleans, she is her stepsisters’ ladies’ maid. We’re meant to bemoan her fall from the leisure class, but what about servants who’ve been servants all their lives? Ash befriends some of them at another house that her stepfamily visits, and they seem perfectly happy with their circumstances — is it fine just because they have better masters? And the huntress has her own servants, who simply bow in and out and are given no character at all. One of Ash’s trials as a servant is that her time is not her own, to visit Sidhean or Kaisa — what about Kaisa’s servants? Don’t they have lovers they might like to visit, rather than hovering around waiting for their mistress to call them? This is mentioned in passing, but it’s never really dealt with, and it’s something that almost always bugs me in fairy tale retellings. Why should we cheer when a character aspires to have servants but be saddened when she has to be one?

Also reviewed by: The Book Smugglers and Racebending

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4 Responses to Review: Ash, Malinda Lo (2009)

  1. Sam says:

    Oh! I had remembered you being someone who loved it. I’m glad you agree with me. :)

    Can you think of any fairy tale-type stories that don’t do that about class? Where the happy ending isn’t going back to the natural order of things, where the rich are rich and only those born as servants have to be servants?

  2. Deborah says:

    It always bemuses me when you and I agree about the specifics of a book, because it happens so rarely. ;)

    I was also disappointed in this book, though I might not have been if I’d read it before the buzz.

  3. Sam says:

    :) Thanks! Leeches are always funny.

  4. Hilary says:

    I’m going to use the phrase, “The medical establishment is dumb because, ha ha, leeches” at somepoint in the future. Nicely done.

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