Book Review: Ash by Malinda Lo
Ash is a retelling of Cinderella, in which the titular protagonist is forced to work as a servant for her stepfamily after the deaths of her parents. After meeting a mysterious fairy named Sidhean, she longs for the fairies to steal her away from her miserable life, but this leaves her vulnerable to their dangerous temptations.
Cinderella is a popular fairy tale for adaptations and retellings. Some elements of Ash, such as one stepsister being a sympathetic character to add nuance and a greatly altered role for the fairy godmother, are common among recent works based on Cinderella. Other aspects are refreshing and make Ash special, such as the influence of Ash’s mother in her life, the portrayal of grief, the inclusion of fairies and the refreshing and charming romance.
Ash includes various original fairy tales which help to establish the world of the text and develop the characters. For example, Ash searches for ideas of how to escape her current situation, finds a favourite tale about a girl who longs to live in the world of the fairies forever and bonds with Kaisa by sharing stories. These fairy tales and their role in the narrative showcase the inherently human desire to find oneself in fiction and the immense power of storytelling.
The death of Ash’s mother Elinor is the first event to occur and the catalyst for the narrative. Symbolically, the protagonist is called Aisling throughout the first few pages, while enduring the early stages of grief, but known as Ash thereafter, indicating the depth of her grief, isolation and desperation. Aisling is an Irish name meaning ‘dream’ or ‘vision’, fitting since Ash experiences important dreams and visions. The name Ash is also significant, not only because ashes are synonymous with cinders, but because this indicates the protagonist is a burnt-out ghost of her former self. After a fire is destroyed, ashes always remain, just as Ash endures and survives despite the hardships of her life.
The themes of grief, abuse, loneliness, escape and recovery are beautifully and realistically portrayed. After the loss of her mother, Ash longs for any escape whatsoever from her stepfamily and latches onto Sidhean, despite the infamous reputation of the fairies, because he is the only person to show her the slightest form of kindness during this time. This is common for abuse survivors yet can lead to idealisation of this person and the likelihood of being manipulated or further abused. Therefore, when Ash forms new relationships with fellow servants and Kaisa, she grows to rely on Sidhean less, demonstrating the importance of support and companionship.
Of course, any analysis of Ash would be incomplete without a discussion of Kaisa, the King’s Huntress and Ash’s love interest. Some reviews call this “controversial”, “unexpected” or “a twist”, but while heteronormativity exists in this fantasy universe (since another maid assumes Ash is interested in men and the prince is expected to find a wife) homophobia does not. Ash and Kaisa’s romance is forbidden due to their different social classes and Ash’s abusive stepmother, not the fact that they’re both girls. However, this makes their relationship even more noteworthy, allowing readers to consider the possibility of a more inclusive world without erasing personal identities. Despite the fantastical setting, Ash’s journey of coming out to herself is relatable to readers, including moments like being fascinated by another couple comprised of two women, experimenting with gender presentation and using fiction to connect with others.
Fans of Ash might be interested in reading an analysis of Cinderella by author Melissa Grey, in terms of the portrayal of abuse, survival and love. Lo agrees, saying “[this is] also how I felt. That’s partly why I wrote my own version. I identified with Cinderella” and “For me, Cinderella was a fantasy about surviving something horrible and finding love at the end of it. When you’re in a dark place, you need those kinds of fantasies. I got a message of empowerment out of it, not of reward for being subservient. That is the Cinderella story I fell in love with, and that is the Cinderella story I told in Ash.”
Overall, Ash emphasises the importance of storytelling and love in various forms, since the narrative is shaped by the love between mothers and daughters, the tragedy of unrequited love, the romance which is revolutionary in many ways and the life-changing strength of self-love.
What did you like and/or dislike about the book?
This is my favourite book, so I like everything! I love the fantasy worldbuilding, the gorgeous prose, the fairy tales woven throughout and the nature of the retelling.
Did the book live up to your expectations?
Ash has been my favourite book ever since the first time I read it back in 2014. I’ve always loved fairy tales and retellings, but Ash surpassed my expectations by opening my eyes to the idea that fiction can be life-changing. I’ve reread Ash several times since then, yet I always discover something new to enjoy or something which makes me think.
What’s your opinion of retelling original works?
I’m a fan of retellings and adaptations because they can be imaginative, transformative and utilise media techniques in interesting ways.