Lo, Malinda. Ash (2010). 272 Pages. Little, Brown Books. $8.99
Aisling is Cinderella, and not Cinderella at the same time. Her mother died when she was young, and her father not long after– though he survived long enough to marry the cruel Lady Isolde. Without her parents to protect her, Ash is at the mercy of her stepmother and her stepsisters, who use her as a maid to settle her father’s debts. Her stepmother especially grinds her down, allowing freedoms only when she is gone.
It is when Lady Isolde, Ana and Clara are gone that Ash learns to live, exploring the magical woods near her home, where she meets Sidhean, an attractive, and strangely protective fairy* who becomes her only friend in this oppressive world.
When Ash is older, things begin to change. She meets Kaisa– the King’s Huntress– who invites her along on a hunt. Desperate to attend, she asks Sidhean for help, which he grants with a steep price. During the hunt, she meets Prince Aidan, heir to the throne, and eligible bachelor.
The hunt leads to the traditional ball, which she attends because Kaisa asks her to– where Aidan is completely enchanted by Aisling– and Aisling must escape before the magic runs out at midnight. Things progress from here in a not-quite Cinderella-esque fashion, and ultimately Aisling finds that she must fight for what she desires.
Aisling’s mother died at midsummer. She had fallen sick so suddenly that some of the villagers wondered if the fairies had come and taken her, for she was still young and beautiful. She was buried three days later beneath the hawthorn tree behind the house, just as twilight was darkening the sky.
Cinderella is a classic, one of those tales which it seems like everyone tries their hand at retelling at least once. My creative writing professor used it as an exercise; retell Cinderella**. Interpretations varied, but they were all interesting. There are so many ways to approach the tale and characters because the outline can be stripped down to the barest bones and still resemble itself.
I really enjoyed watching Aisling discover herself. She starts so young, and so passive, accepting all of the abuse her stepmother and stepsisters heap upon her. She doesn’t know any better, and doesn’t truly have any options. As she grows older, she begins to find an inner strength that shapes the remainder of the novel, though she does not become aware of it herself until nearly the end.
I was satisfied by the supporting characters; there were just enough of them to build the story and each served a purpose. None felt wasted, and every one of them moved the story along in some way.
There is a bit of rough transition when you move from Part I to Part II, as Sidhean fades from prominence. Which is where the story really shifts. It’s not really about Ash-the-maid anymore, as it begins to focus on Ash’s escape from everything. She’s found a new sense of freedom, a new friend, a new… everything, except that she’s still a maid for her family. Despite the transition being a bit rough, the second half remains interesting.
Now, onto a topic which might be a bit spoilery. Opinions on this will vary, I know.
I was intrigued by the idea of a lesbian Cinderella. Not because it hasn’t been done, because I’m sure it has been, but because I’ve never read it before. I feel like it was handled well, and felt natural, rather than forced. Convention says that Cinderella falls in love with the prince, but so what? What if she fell in love with someone else from the royal court? Is that so bad?
No, it really isn’t bad. In fact, it was done brilliantly, and I felt like it added more to the story.
I enjoyed this book so much that there’s no other option than to give it a 5/5. It managed to be a fresh look at a classic fairy tale, with characters you liked, without being over the top at any point in time.
* These fairies are more closely related to the Sidhe than tinkerbell.
** My version featured George, the cross-dresser who was faced with certain death when the prince discovered his long-standing deception. It still needs some polish, but I had a lot of fun writing it.