Ash, by Malinda Lo

Ash_novel_malinda_loAsh is a retelling of the Cinderella fairy story, with a twist. Aisling, or Ash, lives in a world where fairy tales and reality collide. When her father dies, leaving her orphaned with a (realistically) cruel stepmother and stepsisters, Ash is made into a servant in their house. Her only escape is in exploring the off-limits fairy world that most of the kingdom no longer believes in. She befriends a fairy named Sidhean, who later wants to claim her as his love. Only problem is, in the meantime, Ash has fallen in love with the king’s huntress, Kaisa…

This is a joint review with Jason of Moored At Sea.

Amanda: Well, this might be difficult, as we had wildly contrasting opinions on this book. For my part, I was really leery going into the book. I’m not usually a big fan of fairy tale retellings and I’d heard some so-so reviews in the past. I was pleasantly surprised, though. I really liked the tone, especially in the first half of the book. It screamed “fairy tale” to me and didn’t feel fake or forced like many retellings do. I was drawn into the story and enjoyed the characters. The second half was less convincing to me and I felt the last 50 pages were way too fast, but over all I still liked the book.

Jason: I REALLY wanted to like the story – I’m a hermit with books, and I usually don’t get excited about new ones, but when I heard about this one, it gnawed it me somehow, and I really, really wanted to read it. In the end, for me, it felt something like the Phantom felt for you (well, not awful and laughable, though). I felt like there was this germ, these seeds that felt real and genuine, mythic. The hunt, and the ball were both very powerful, for instance, the ending, unlike you, I didn’t mind. But, the problem was that in between, the book felt kind of generic. Not fairy tale generic, just generic-generic. The world was flat and dead, instead of spring-loaded and hazy the way it is in a fairy tale. I felt like there were parts that the author really felt and expressed, and then there were parts where she just wrote out intellectually without her heart at all.

Amanda: I would disagree with you on several points. First, I actually felt like the whole thing was “spring-loaded and hazy.” I actually felt like it was dreamy in just the way a fairy tale should be. Once I figured out it wasn’t happening in our world, I let the details slip away and become part of the whole atmosphere. I thought that was very well done. And I really doubt you can say that the author felt some parts and didn’t write with her heart in others. I think that’s unfair to the author. Especially as I think of the book exactly opposite – I feel like the parts in the world were more heartfelt, and the ball, hunt, etc felt glossed over and generic. The balls, especially. They were one of the parts that troubled me. Ash would show up, dance once, and disappear, and hours would have gone by. I didn’t get it. I preferred the times when she was learning about herself to the parts where she interacted with people in the city. Those felt off for me.

So, what did you think of the love stories?

Jason: I apologize, I don’t mean to presume to interpret the author’s internal thoughts, just the narration felt forced in some of the in-between. I think it’s a difference in expectation – I love the suggestive silences in some of those parts – the very fact that things AREN’T described, and that there are these inexplicable stretches of time felt suggestive to me – they felt the way I like magic to feel in a story. Like you don’t see it directly, just through a glass, darkly.

I will say that, I actually DID think Ms Lo did a beautiful job of showing the differences in the two love stories. The love she held for her fairy lover was compelling, but it only engaged a piece of her, it was sort of a magical hyperbolic lust, and the contrast between that and the more subtle and humanly awkward way she falls in love with the huntress was powerful. I felt like (while I could have done with a bit more time developing their relationship) by the end of the book, she could love the huntress with all the different pieces of her, which is, after all, what one of the themes was to me: It shows what it is the fairies don’t have. The fairies have intensities, but no steady, all-encompassing emotions. They can feel ecstasy, but not joy, agony, but not sorrow. You know?

Amanda: Again, I’m the opposite. I didn’t really feel like Ash loved either character. She related to Sidhean as her only friend and as a fascination held alive by her mother’s memory, and then she connected to Kaisa again because the caring the Kaisa shows her reminds her of her mother. I felt like all the love was just a substitution for missing her mother, which isn’t a bad thing, but I didn’t necessarily feel like it was romantic.

And it bothered me when certain things weren’t explained. Like Kaisa tells the story of the former huntress quitting because she got married, but never says why. Or all the missing time. I like my narrative stories to be complete. I felt like the world was convincingly built, but particularly in the latter half of the book, there were just some missing pieces I would have liked filled in. I also wondered why, in a world where same-sex love is acceptable and normal, there were no boy couples, just girl couples. Did you notice that?

Jason: I did not notice that. You’ll laugh at me, but for a minute, I thought she was going to say the prince had a boyfriend at one point :D. But, then, it’s interesting because even in this world, homosexuality felt like a rare exception to the general rule, an outlier not described properly by the ‘rules of the game’ – but that’s just an impression. What you bring up about the romance is an interesting point. I didn’t feel like it was like that with her fairy lover, but I certainly did with the huntress. But that didn’t bother me, or impede my feeling like they were in love. I mean, part of what makes people so well suited to each other, I think, is that they can give each other what they need, you know? True love is more than just romantic attraction, it’s feeling a comfort with each other. Some people need someone to be a comforter, some people need someone who is good at appreciating them, some people need someone who makes them feel like they are at home, etc. We all have things we need, and part of the beauty of love is that we can give those things to each other. So, which characters did you feel like you related to?

Amanda: I think it’s uncomfortable to think about people choosing their romantic partners based on them being mother or father figures to them. Maybe it’s because I was once in one of those types of relationships, but I think that there’s automatically going to be a block in such cases. I get the impression that Ash and Kaisa could not live happily ever after because Ash really has some major issues to work out in herself. And I liked that about her. I liked that that was realistic.

I’m not sure I really related to any of the characters personally. I usually don’t when it comes to fairy tales. Certainly I didn’t to Ash or Sidhean. I understood Ash’s stepmother and stepsisters, but didn’t really relate to them either. I suppose in some ways I could understand Kaisa the best, though I felt like her character was a bit underdeveloped. I do like that she was considered a high station even though she was the king’s huntress. I guess I assumed, when I first heard of the hunters and huntresses, that they were similar to the king’s military – upper lower class, higher than servant but not royalty. It was interesting that she had a status above Lords. That wasn’t something I expected. An interesting little twist in their world.

Who did you relate most to?

Jason: I think, in fairy tales, I usually relate to situations, more than characters. But in that sense, I related to Sidhean’s situation, the sort of steady descent. Particularly at the end, where you learn that he has a curse that he, frankly, earned fair and square for his actions, I understood his character. I think sometimes I have to be cursed in order to learn, that I’m too oblivious to learn things without having my eyes opened by force. And so, the feeling that for him to grow he had to decay, and to be opened into real, genuine emotions (both love and regret, and then loss), was poignant to me – though I wish the last scene with him could have been a bit more evocative. I didn’t mind it fading out then in the way it did, I just felt like that was the climactic scene for him, not her, and that he is almost absent in it.

Amanda: I’d agree with you on that sentiment. That was part of the place where I wish there had been MORE to the text. I personally am not convinced that Sidhean felt any real emotions, honestly. I don’t know that a curse could actually make him feel something real, or that his feelings were ever anything more than lust/greed. There’s argument both ways, but I couldn’t feel like he really loved her, which I guess is why part of the ending felt false/unsettled to me. I needed more in order to buy into the way the book ended, to the way the characters all resolved their fates.

But overall, I really enjoyed the book. I’m sorry you didn’t like it more. :/

Jason: Yes, that’s part of the frustration, for me, is I felt like I had to really work to make up my own stories in this book – a fairy tale, to me, is just the opposite, it’s this sort of infinitely fertile ground, that lets your brain spring up in different ways. Here, it felt like it was explained too much for that, but then not explained enough to be a world-intensive story like historical fiction or high fantasy might be. It kind of teetered back and forth and didn’t succeed as either for me. But, honestly again, I think it is probably just me. I probably wanted the book to be something it just wasn’t intended to be. Thanks for reading it with me, though :).

About Amanda

Writing. Family. Books. Crochet. Fitness. Fashion. Fun. Not necessarily in that order. Note: agender (she/her).
This entry was posted in 2010, Prose, Young Adult and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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