In the world of ASH, fairies are an older race of people who walk the line between life and death, reality and magic. As orphaned Ash grows up, a servant in her stepmother’s home, she begans to realise that her beloved mother, Elinor, was very much in tune with these underworld folk, and that she herself has the power to see them too.
Against the sheer misery of her stepmother’s cruelty, greed and ambition in preparing her two charmless daughters for presentation at court, and hopefully royal or aristocratic marriage, Ash befriends one of these fairies – a mysterious, handsome man – who grants her wishes and restores hope to Ash’s existence, even though she knows there will be a price to pay. But most important of all, she also meets Kaisa, a huntress employed by the king, and it is Kaisa who truly awakens Ash’s desires for both love and self-respect …
ASH is a fairy tale about possibility and recognizing the opportunities for change. From the deepest grief comes the chance for transformation.
The easiest way to describe Malinda Lo’s Ash is to say “queer Cinderella for Young Adults”. However, such a simple statement is a disservice to the deeply engaging world Lo creates for her protagonist.
I like to think of Ash as a wonderful departure from tradition, even when its world is firmly rooted in classic fairytales. Yes, there is a ball to attend that the fierceless protagonist must abandon before midnight, there is a prince, and there is, of course, a wicked step-mother. However, the story doesn’t enslave itself to the Cinderella that we already know, and instead creates its own unique path.
To recap quickly: Ash’s mother passes away and her father remarries, bringing into his household a step-mother and two step-sisters for Ash. When Ash’s father dies, she becomes a servant to her own step-family. Sound familiar? Indeed it is up until that point. However, soon Ash starts seeing a strange man that belongs to the fairy race, and who substitutes the fairy godmother character (with a lot less bibbidi bobbidi booing). Ash longs to go with him, unless until she meets the head of the royal hunt.
The world-building of the novel is fantastic, mixing a Celtic style of fairy folklore with a classic Disney-like approach, thus treating the reader to dark fantasy at its best. Fairies appear as a magic race that humans deal with at their own peril, and whose favors always come with a price. The writing style, too, makes the story feel both traditional and new, honoring folktales while playing around with more modern social notions.
The lesbian love story isn’t treated as controversial, which is always a nice surprise, since the conflict comes instead from a very classic coming-of-age narrative, as well as from class difference. The relationship between the two characters isn’t overtly romantic until maybe halfway through the book, and it’s quite innocent as well, but satisfying in its akwardness and friendship that grows into something more.
The best thing about the book is definetely its well thought-out characters. Three-dimensional and engaging, Ash is an easy favorite for a YA protagonist, likeable, coregeous and spirited. Her struggle with the fairy world is well-supported by her grief over the death of her mother, and her choices are understandable.
Kaisa, Ash’s love interest, is a completely original creation to the Cinderella story, and works as a sympathetic and strong presence within the narrative, making it easy to understand why Ash’s final choice is between the magic world of fairies and the human world where she has found love.
Lo has crafted here a beautiful and dark tale, where the protagonist must decide between a dangerous flirtation that offers her a reprieve from her sadness, and finding salvation on her own terms. Ash will conquer fans of LGBT YA books, but I reccommend it for any fan of well-built fantasy worlds, fairytale retellings, romance and great female protagonists.
Buy Ash by Malinda Lo here.
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You can find this book in my list Top 10 Best Fantasy and Romance Novels