Sold as a Cinderella retelling with a lesbian twist, Malinda Lo’s Ash didn’t really deliver what it promised. There is very little Cinderella about it and the elements that were wedged in felt forced and unnecessary. This was kind of a mess.
Published by: Hodder, 2009
Paperback: 291 pages
My rating: 4/10
First sentence: Aisling’s mother died at midsummer.
In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love—and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.
Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.
We all know the story of Cinderella, the girl used and abused by her stepmother and stepsisters. Forced to do all the chores and live as a servant to her family, hers is the ultimate rags-to-riches tale. If you needed to boil Cinderella down to its essence, that would be it: going from nothing to everything, whether that “everything” comes in the shape of a prince or otherwise.
Malinda Lo’s book is sold as a retelling of the Grimms’ tale but has so little in common with it that I kept wondering… why wouldn’t author and publisher simply market this for what it is: An original fairy story. After all, there’s no shame in coming up with your own ideas rather than re-hash a well-known fairy tale. But you see, when I’m told I’ll get a “Cinderella retelling” and I end up with something completely different, I feel disappointed and angry. Not because that something is bad in and of itself but because I feel tricked. I bought this believing one thing, only to find out I have been fooled.
The elements that connect Lo’s story to Cinderella are so flimsy and unimportant that they might as well not be there at all. Aisling – or Ash – loses her mother at the beginning of the book. Her father promptly remarries and, a few weeks later, dies of an illness. The stepmother and two stepsisters are mean and make Ash clean the house. Except as readers, we are only told that they are mean and we don’t ever actually witness Ash doing chores. In fact, Ash seems to have a very easy time getting away from home, doing as she pleases – where’s the terrible Cinderella life? Then the story takes a highly convenient turn when stepmother and sisters spend extended amounts of time out in the city – so Ash has even more free time on her hands, which she spends in the Woods, meeting up with Sidhean, a handsome fairy man. Her life sounds pretty damn comfortable to me.
All of this is made worse by Ash’s utterly wooden character. In the beginning, she is still somewhat believable. A young girl who misses her mother terribly, is scared for her sick father and terrified of the new stepmother, Ash is a child stricken with grief. But as soon as she hits puberty, Ash becomes a blank piece of paper on which the author forgot to write something. She keeps meeting up with Sidhean in a hinted romance. I can recall at least one scene with sparks flying – although these sparks were pretty one-sided. Ash doesn’t show any emotion, except for blushing frequently, and remains cold to Sidhean’s advances. If there’s one thing I cannot stand in a protagonist, it’s passivity. Ash didn’t take any action, unless you count going to the wood to wait for stuff to happen, to wait for others to speak to her, to wait for somebody to tell her what to do. It’s both boring and annoying to watch.
Enter the huntress. If I hadn’t read Malinda Lo’s Adaptation, I might not have noticed at all, but seeing the same thing happen twice in as many books, it stood out to me how only ever one of the “love interests” appears. The author really took the easiest route for her love triangle (if it can be called that). When Ash first meets the huntress Kaisa, Sidhean disappears for just the amount of time it takes Ash and Kaisa to form a sort of friendship. The inconvenience that might arise, should both potential love interests appear at the same time, is simply avoided – and with that, any conflict that might have made the book interesting. In addition, the friendship between Kaisa and Ash is strange in nature. They go riding together (again, since when does Cinderella have time to spend entire days doing whatever she wants?), they talk very little, Ash blushes a lot. No romance in sight. Until – BAM! – at the end it’s True Love Forever! Any points this story may have gained from ignoring the prince and going for the huntress are lost in an avalanche of pointless insta-love.
Speaking of the prince. He is yet another example of why this just doesn’t work as a Cinderella retelling. Prince Aidan is mentioned by the stepsisters as a prize to be won, and Ash actually does go to a ball in a blue dress and dances with him. Except these scenes were utterly pointless. They didn’t advance the plot, they didn’t show Ash’s character (except how incredibly passive and boring she is). Had the entire section been cut from the book, the story would have remained the same. So I kept asking myself – why put them in at all? Just so this can be called a “Cinderella retelling”?
To be fair, there are some elements of Ash that I found interesting. Instead of retelling a fairy tale, Lo created her own world with its own fairy lore. The fairy folk, old beliefs, and superstition are much more central to the plot than anything to do with Cinderella, at least in the beginning. There is a strong undercurrent of old faith versus new beliefs that could have made for a great story all on its own. But trying to bridge the gap between original fairy stories and Cinderella, the author doesn’t fully commit to either of them, leaving a half-finished blob of a novel in her wake. The one point of conflict – a fairy contract (you know these are tricky!) – is resolved so ridiculously easily that I actually laughed out loud.
To me, every aspect of this story was badly executed. The characters are bland cardboard cut-outs, there is little to no plot, it is not a retelling of Cinderella, nor does it fully stand on its own feet. The romance is undetectable – with poth potential partners – and the writing doesn’t stand out, either. None of these were bad enough to make me throw the book across the room in a fit of rage, but I don’t know if my total indifference isn’t worse.
MY RATING: 4/10 – Bad
As always, here are some other people’s opinions to see if the book may not just be the thining for you. Make sure to check out these reviews as I seem to be pretty alone with my negative opinion. Sometimes, a book is just not for you.