Author: Malinda Lo
Genre: LGBTQ, young adult; fairytale retelling
My Rating: ★★★ 1/2
When her father died, Aisling’s—Ash’s—world is turned upside down. Her stepmother, Lady Isobel, is cruel to her, and her stepsisters are not exactly fond of her. Ash is forced to work as a servant for her stepfamily, and she could only hope for someone to take her away from her miserable life.
Sounds familiar? It might, but this is not the fairytale you remember—it’s not the story of Disney’s ultimate damsel in distress who waits for Prince Charming to come by and hand her the happy-ever-after she longs for. In this retelling, instead of falling in love with a dashing prince, the dreamy, pretty orphan becomes smitten with the King’s feisty huntress, Kaisa.
You read that right. It’s Cinderella with a lesbian twist.
The strongest point of this book, for me, is the elegant unfolding of love between the two women and the society’s reaction (or lack thereof) to their budding relationship. The bottom line of the novel is not that the Cinderella figure is a lesbian, it is that no one cares that she is a lesbian. With that concept as a backbone, Malinda Lo managed to create this loose retelling sans the ‘coming out’ vibes that most LGBTQ titles possess.
The coming-of-age part of the book molds Ash well into a believable character, but she’s not particularly a likable one. While Ash only raises herself a step from being a total ingénue, Kaisa is portrayed as a stronger and more mannish character that completes what Ash lacks. Oh, I forgot to mention that there’s a bizarre love triangle here, and you’ll be surprised who makes the third side of it: the fairy godmother figure from the original tale…except that this time he’s a cruel Fairy Prince cursed to love a human girl (I really love the gender-bending bits!). Characterization of the antagonists came off as a little ‘bedtime story’ conventional, and to me they feel a stage short of being inflated into fully-realized characters. But in fairness to Lo, she suggests that Ash’s older stepsister only forces herself to marry a wealthy man just to make themselves a kisby ring, not wanting to sink into poverty, given the existing social strata in their world.
That takes us to the world-building—which is amazing. I love the complexities of Ash’s world, from the smallest fireside stories to the traditions of Rook Hill and the King’s City. Side by side, greenwitches and philosophers exist, a prevalent science vs. magic feel that helps shapes Lo’s universe. I also tremendously enjoyed the fables and myths that are deftly intertwined with the main story; they’re like gems embedded in a layer of less-precious stones. If they are invented by Lo, I’ll never know, but they sound authentic and they carry some shades of Brothers Grimm in them.
This is a good book, but if you are a sucker for retellings that are fast-paced, gripping, and out of the ordinary, Ash may not be your cup of tea. There is a lot to like about this novel, but there is something about the narration that does not quite click with me. The descriptions are beautifully dreamy and lush, but they make the transitions from scene to scene a tad slow. Other than that, I think this is a nice treat for fable-lovers and for queer people. After all, gays need fairytales, too.
a little trivia: Cinderella comes from the name “cendrillon,” which in French literally means “little ashes,” so I think Lo’s choice for her protagonist’s (nick)name matches this. Some sources also say that the girl in Cinderella is originally named Ella and she is almost always covered in soot/cinders from cleaning. This is used by Lo as well, as for many times Ash sleeps by the hearth and ends up coated with ashes and soot when she wakes up.