Book Review: ASH

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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.

4 stars

Writing EXTRACTION – entry 11

so many questions!!

so many questions!!

This is the eleventh in a series of posts about the redrafting process of THE LONG ROAD which will be composed and published as I rewrite the book. The other posts in this series are here.

I know I’m getting close to the end of a piece when I start brainstorming for the next one. Unlike in my personal life, in terms of writing I am a serial monogamist: slavishly devoted to one piece…for a while. I can see them through the end, but as the story wraps itself up I get a wandering eye*. And so it is with The Long Road rewrites (which I’ve tentatively titled Extraction.

I’ve been working steadily on the manuscript. Between a particularly hectic period at work and a particularly hectic period at home I haven’t had much of a chance to blog about the rewrites, but they’ve been going well—lots of bus writing, you know. The draft will definitely need a second pass to clean up characterization and clarify themes, but the draft looks really solid. I’d been shooting for a rewrite which streamlined the previous draft down from a sprawling 150K word novel to a tighter 70K word young adult novel. Parallel storylines were jettisoned, the cast of characters was pared down. I’m entering the last section of the book at the 63K word mark, so I’m right on schedule.

But is it a young adult book? That part I don’t know. YA seems to me a slippery construct, probably in no small part due to the fact that I was a precocious reader who read frankly inappropriate stuff quite early. I’ve read most of the YA books I have as a fully-fledged pushing-thirty adult. I guess what I mean to say is that I set out to rewrite this book as one I would have wanted to read as a young adult (which is what, when you’re 14? 15ish?). But there’s part of me that suspects that if I tried to shop this around as a YA novel it would be deemed too adult. There’s some drugs in it, and not all of them are portrayed in a DARE-ish JUST SAY NO kind of way. Addiction is explored somewhat. There’s sex in it, some of it fairly explicit (though there are plot reasons for that). All the sex is consensual, a lot of it is queer, and all of it is of the positive life-affirming variety, even when it’s not a 1:1 match with love. There’s surprisingly little violence in the book. This seems appropriate to me.

But then I think about The Hunger Games. Those books are all violence, no sex. Some chaste kisses, that’s it, though kids get gutted and torn apart by genetically mutated dogs. Somehow that’s more ok for young minds to read than two women having heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable sex together? I don’t know. It makes no sense to me. Which is not to knock The Hunger Games at all—I love those books. They are fantastic, and they explore a lot of ideas about PTSD and heroism and propaganda that I think are absolutely appropriate for young adults. But America, with its Puritanical streak, is so much more ok with kids reading vicious ciolence than positive portrayals of sexuality. It just so strange.

Ultimately I’m not sure it matters much one way or another. Hopefully this book will find its audience, and its audience will probably be some adults and some young adults. I think it will probably get out there through a small press, likely not one with a particular focus on YA lit, so this is probably all a moot point. But it’s food for thought.

*I’ll expand on this in another post soon. YOU GUYS I’M VERY EXCITED ABOUT THIS ONE.