Author: Malinda Lo
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.
Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.
Ash reads less like a modern YA fantasy and more like an updated Grimm fairy tale (except with a Cinderella ending). Dialogue is used sparingly and much of the story is told through narrative prose but it works surprisingly well. For those looking for a satisfying, F/F fantasy with rife with fairy magic, this is the book for you.
Aisling (pronounced ASH-ling): For a narrative style that doesn’t really put us in the main character’s head, I became awfully fond of Ash. She clings to the Old Ways of fairy magic and greenwitchery after her mother dies while her father and the rest of the kingdom move away from those traditions. It’s heartbreaking to watch her deal with the loss of these two massively important parts of her life. The time jumps in the first half cover several years but we still get to see Ash grow up into a young woman who has spent much of her adolescence tolerating abuse and injustice, molding her into a resilient person who, very understandably, seeks to escape–and actually might have a means to do so in the Fairy Prince who loves her.
Sidhean (pronounced SHEEN): Much of Sidhean’s past is left out of the book–in fact, I think the only time it’s mentioned he’s a Fairy Prince is on the back of the cover. He has ties to the family that become important but it’s his strong allure that brings Ash to him and keeps her coming back. They develop a strange friendship that becomes the crux of the climax. For such an important role, we learn very little about Sidhean but what’s more important is how Ash feels about him, and it’s not important to know little details. I’d love to see a cinematic version of this book just to see Sidhean brought to life on the silver screen.
Kaisa: I really liked Kaisa and I just realized she breaks one of the big rules of writing! She’s not in the first act–heck, she’s not in the first half of the book. The King’s Huntress as a position of employement is introduced and we hear several stories about former Huntresses, but Kaisa herself doesn’t come into play until the second half of the book (appropriately called “Huntress”). And she is my kind of Huntress. Fair, kind, but tough and absolutely sure in everything she does. I would love to read a sequel with the Ash and Kaisa together to get more detail about how they build their lives as a couple. Kaisa is clearly the more experienced lover between the two of them and they develop first a friendship and then a romance in a subtle way I wouldn’t have expected from such a short introduction.
I’m not sure who would play her in a movie but they’d have to balance the confidence and gentle touch of this magnetic personality.
Supporting Cast: One thing that I adored about this book is how it actually took the time to make the stepmother and stepsisters into people. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen these characters reduced to plot devices, serving only to heap cruelty after cruelty onto the Cinderella character. In Ash, the stepmother forces Ash into servitude because her father has left the family in terrible debt, and now Ash must work it off. She isn’t cruel for cruelty’s sake, she just blames Ash for her troubles and takes her anger out on her stepdaughter.
The stepsisters are also refreshingly updated. The older girl is snobbish, selfish, and shallow but the younger is almost a friend to Ash. They all live under the harsh demands of Ash’s stepmother and each deals with it in her own way. Ash and Clara, the younger sister, steal moments of near-kindness with each other and even the older sister has some depth to her.
This book follows the original Cincerella plot but puts new twists on much of the details. The skeleton of the story is the same: The kind, loving mother dies, the father dies after marrying a cruel woman with two daughters. The prince is looking for a bride. There is a tearing-of-the-dress scene that, as it’s supposed to, presents a turning point in the story.
But the Fairy Godmother we all remember from the Disney version is a gorgeous Fairy Prince who has fallen in love with her. He, too offers her anything she wants but, in return, he requires payment. And the price is steep.
And the prince? He’s there, but the love interest is a woman. This is an F/F fantasy (female-female fantasy, aka a lesbian fantasy) that introduces the King’s Huntress, a young woman who leads the Royal Hunt every year. Kaisa and Ash’s romance develops slowly and but genuinely and drives the plot forward, raising the stakes and creating conflict in the latter half of the book (which is actually split into two parts).
I usually don’t like this style, I prefer dialogue-heavy books with few pages filled with paragraphs of inner monologues or narration, but Ash works for me. The narration style allows the reader to feel for Ash’s struggles and also leaves us detached enough that the narrator can fill us in on the mythology. Plus, during tense moments, a dialogue-sparse style is actually useful to force me to read the whole paragraph instead of trying to skip ahead (a nasty habit of mine). And there are plenty of these scenes as tension rises steadily throughout the book.
We simply must talk about the fantasy elements in this book. Although it closely follows the Cinderella story beats, this version immerses the reader in the world of fairies and fairy magic. Ash has numerous encounters with fairies, some more dangerous than others, and stories of Huntresses and the fairy court abound throughout the book. In fact, my only complaint would be that the number of stories about the Huntress facing the dangerous of the fairy world to retrieve her lover seemed to promise something the book just wasn’t in a position to deliver. In the end, this really just means I couldn’t quite predict the climax, so I’m not complaining too much. 😉
Finally, I absolutely loved the lesson included in the book. Without being too spoilery, let’s just say it’s about true love and how to put someone else’s needs ahead of your own. I am so accustomed to a final battle or an action-packed fight scene at the end of a fantasy that Lo’s climax, an internal realization and a huge risk-taking endeavor that ultimately pays off, are just as refreshing as the other updated elements of the book.
Ash is a modern fairy tale story steeped in old writing traditions, fairy magic, and budding love. The characters are well done, the setting is fantastic, and the plot keeps you turning the page. I would definitely recommend this to anyone who likes YA fantasy and fairy tales.
Don’t forget! The next book is Shadowshaper! Funny enough, I was looking around on Diversity in YA (which Malinda Lo co-founded, by the way, and it’s awesome and you should go check it right now because I can wait here…) and found a great guest post by the author of Shadowshaper. You can read a little bit about the thought process behind the book, which might be especially exciting if you are planning on reading along!