Malinda Lo’s Ash is a quick read packed with interesting ideas. The book explores themes of femininity, liminality and power all wrapped up in a queer coming-of-age retelling of Cinderella. Aisling—nicknamed Ash—winds up working in her stepmother’s house as a servant after the untimely deaths of first her mother and then her father. Her father’s death saddled her stepmother, Lady Isobel, with unforseen debts, and Lady Isobel tells Ash it’s her duty to work those debts off by way of servitude. Ash grows up a servant in Quinn House, where she cooks and cleans for Lady Isobel and her stepsisters Ana and Clara. But while her days are taken up with the minutia of housekeeping, Ash’s nights are her own. She explores the nearby woods, where she meets first a fairy man with an ominous and mysterious interest in her, and then the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, for whom Ash falls hard. The crux of the book comes when Ash decides to strike deals with the fairy, Sidhean, in order to spend time with Kaisa. The book is full of cusps and precipices: Ash wanders from the human world into the fairy world, from childhood to adolescence, is a servant but masquerades as a noblewoman. It’s a book about choices and about boundaries with a very welcome and agentic female protagonist.
Lo was intentional in her use of fairy tales throughout—the reader knows, going into the book, that it is a retelling of a common fairy tale. We come in with expectations based on that. The style of the book is distant and regal, old-fashioned. There are few contractions and a measured pace, the likes of which we associate with “once upon a time” writing. Occasionally this was too literal for my taste, but Lo generally carries it off and uses this tone and language to create truly lovely imagery throughout. But, what’s most interesting is that there is, at play here, a meta-textual relationship between the fact that this is another iteration of a common fairy tale and the role of fairy tales within the book. Ash reads and rereads a book of fairy tales throughout her childhood and adolescence. Ash and Kaisa flirt by telling each other their favorite fairy tales. They discuss the role of fairy tales, the lessons they teach, and how regardless of their veracity they become real, living institutions. Ash uncovers the fairy tales of her own history—of her mother’s life—over the course of her relationship with Sidhean, a living fairy. It’s a fascinating thing to read which never becomes overly clever or gimmicky.
Part of the reason the fairy tales within a fairy tale aspect of the book works so well is because Ash’s world is so well-drawn. It’s an especially feminine book; by that I mean that it is a book much more concerned about women’s lives and women’s roles and women’s sources of power than men’s. While Lady Isobel and her two daughters first appear to be yet another two-dimensional incarnation of the evil stepmother and wicked stepsisters trope, Lo takes the time to fill them in and give them realistic motives and limitations. They never become sympathetic, but they become understandable people who are both trapped in their circumstances and so entrenched in those circumstances that they see only a handful of options. Lady Isobel is a woman heading a household and managing a mountain of debt without any real income—it makes financial sense for her to take her stepdaughter and turn her into a servant she doesn’t have to pay. It is unfair, but it makes sense. And it makes sense for her to push her oldest daughter, Ana, to marry well. She sees Ana as her one chance at pulling her family out of the hole, and Ana is groomed and indoctrinated accordingly. Clara, the second sister, has a number of interesting conversations about marrying for money and status with Ash over the course of the book. Ash, being a servant, is in a position where marrying for love is a much simpler and much more accessible option. That Lo points this out humanizes and contextualizes the book’s antagonists.
Marriage—who does it and who doesn’t—is a broader theme in the book. The outlying towns where Ash hails from are held together by rural greenwitches, who work as the town’s healers and sources of wisdom and who traditionally don’t marry. Ash’s mother was one prior to her marriage to Ash’s father, so Ash is steeped in that community. The King’s Huntress, a position of high status and visibility, is another role of feminine power tied to a tradition of not marrying. And in contrast, there is Lady Isobel and her daughters who, through circumstance and their institutional lack of a viable trade, use marriage to claim and assert an altogether different kind of power. This running conversation about women’s lives and women’s choices—and the extent to which those are real, true choices rather than prescribed ones—made this book a joy to read.
While Ash was a finely drawn character, I would have liked deeper characterization of the tertiary characters. Kaisa, specifically, remained a cipher through the text, someone who was more role than real person. I rooted for them to work out, but mostly because I was rooting for Ash; their romance felt rote and unfinished at times, but perhaps that was . Ultimately, my biggest complaint about the book is that it was too short and too restrained for my taste. I wanted more history, more exploration of the characters’ interaction. I wanted more raw anger and sexuality. But this was a YA book, and Ash adheres to the conventions of YA lit—short, fraught with tension that culminates in a couple of tongue kisses and nothing more. None of this is a criticism of the conventions of YA literature; these are more my personal tastes. Ash is an excellent book by any standard, and an excellent YA book in particular.