Ash – Malinda Lo – 272 pages
In a small village at the edge of the Wood, some people still hold to the old beliefs. Ash’s mother was one of those people, but her father is not. While Ash grieves, her father remarries to a money-hungry woman with two daughters of her own. Then her father falls ill and dies, leaving the family in debt; Lady Isobel forces Ash to repay the debt in labor, and moves house to her own family estate with Ash as the family’s only servant. Ash’s life is hard, but she has a secret: when she goes walking in the Wood at night, a strange, ephemerally beautiful man walks beside her and watches out for her, a man who takes the fairy roads and rides a fairy steed and calls Ash his own. He and Ash’s lost mother are all she thinks about–until she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Ash’s world slowly begins to change, and she must find a way to keep a bargain while still following her heart.
I just finished Ash today while sitting in the laundromat. Not exactly the perfect place to curl up with a good fairy tale, but still, I didn’t really want to put it down. Now I find myself sitting here trying to figure out what I want to say about what you’ve done, and words aren’t coming with their usual alacrity. Okay, maybe they don’t ever come with alacrity, but I’m sure you can tell by the way I’m dodging around that I’m a little confused.
First and foremost, I want to thank you. I did a paper back at Simmons about Annie On My Mind versus modern lesbian lit for teens, to see how far we had (or hadn’t) come in the 27 years (26 at the time I wrote the paper) since its publication. I discovered, to my great disappointment, that we hadn’t really come very far–queer fare for girls was still full of fear, hatred, disownings, runaways, tragic coming out stories, and that one true love that made all the trials and tribulations worthwhile.
I’m tired of these stories. I’m tired of the tropes they embrace–that being a lesbian is tragic and hard, that you should be afraid, that people will surely revile you. That only another lesbian, probably your first girlfriend (and we all know that rarely ends well), will understand you and love you for who you are. I know there’s a market for these stories, and I know that some girls have those experiences. Some girls are rightly afraid, some are disowned, some suffer terrible prejudice. Maybe I’m just lucky, but I never lived that, and have never accepted it as an option for my life. I’ve been waiting a very long time for a book that doesn’t include shocking revelations, moral anguish and intolerance. A book that’s just about a girl who falls in love with another girl, and maybe she has problems, because everyone has problems, but being a lesbian or bisexual isn’t one of them. I’ve been waiting for this kind of teen story for so long that I started writing one myself, and though it’s slow going, I’ll keep on with it. Then I finally got my hands on Ash. Congratulations–you’ve done it, you’ve written the kind of story I’ve looked so long and hard for, and I’m extremely, unspeakably grateful.
Now that I’ve gotten that bit off my chest, I feel like I can tell you what I thought of the book as a book, and not as an ambassador for lesbian and bisexual teens. I think you made an interesting choice in basing the story so strongly on Cinderella–I get it, classic love story, and what little baby dyke hasn’t wished Prince Charming was Princess Charming?–but I found that I sometimes thought you were following the fairy tale too closely, and at other times I thought your subtle changes to the story were brilliant. The wicked stepmother, for instance. I find it difficult to believe, in any version of Cinderella, that she’s really that wicked and money/status hungry. The nasty characters in a story are often the most interesting, if you look deeply enough, but Isobel (and Ana, as well) seemed stock. I could picture them as any of the wicked stepmothers and stepsisters, the Disney version, or the Rogers and Hammerstein version, or even the ones in the animated short of Yeh-Shen that I loved as a child.
Then, like I said, sometimes I thought you made brilliant choices, like casting Sidhean in the “fairy godmother” role. Though it was clear to me that he was a fairy, until he started granting wishes to go to balls, I didn’t make that connection. I was delighted by that, absolutely delighted. I also thought it was pretty brilliant to have the prince fall for Ash at the masquerade, though she didn’t intend him to, and his search for her was only a murmur in the background of a much more consuming romance. You turned the camera lens around, refocused it to capture a different story unfolding.
And let me tell you, I loved Kaisa. I loved Kaisa and Ash together, I loved every minute they spent gently and awkwardly falling in love. I’m a sucker for a woman on a horse, and also for green eyes, so of course you had me by the heartstrings all along. When Kaisa rode up asking for water for herself and her mount, I couldn’t help but swoon, thinking of Lesley Ann Warren handing her prince a dipper of water (at 2:46) and saying he was “most kindly welcome.” Kaisa and Ash’s confessions of love to each other were simple, easy, without fanfare or angst, and it gave me warm fuzzies to think of them together after the book’s end. That’s something else I want to talk about, though, the book’s end.
It felt rushed to me. You spent a lot of the book with Ash alone, setting her up in the Cinderella role, creating some mystery with her dead mother and the strange fairy and whatnot; then she met Kaisa, and things started to change, and I was with you. I was with you right up until the part when Ash realizes the loophole, realizes the way she can make everything work. She came to it too quickly, and Sidhean agreed too readily; I saw too little of the bargain be paid, and felt like it should have been a little bit harder. I’m glad you didn’t make Ash ashamed or angsty about her love for Kaisa, but I do wish the solution had required a little more trouble, just to make that final moment of the book even more sweetly triumphant. I also wish there could have been a little bit more about Sidhean and Ash’s mother, about what he was like before the curse, about what he will be like now that he’ll be pining for Ash for the rest of his life. I have so many questions that weren’t answered, and on one hand that’s good, because it means you created a world I completely believe in, populated with characters I care about. Still, It’s such a slim little volume–surely there’s room for a tiny bit more (though the Rog might argue with me on that one).
Still, sometimes it’s okay to leave a girl wanting more. I hope you continue to write fiction, especially for teens–your prose is beautiful, and I look forward to whatever comes next (and YAY, in this interview you indicate the next book will be an Ash companion!). In the mean time, I’ll hold Ash dear to my heart as a giant step forward in lesbian lit for teens, not to mention as a lovely story. Thank you again, so much. Five stars.
Books this year: 88
Pages this year: 16,907