I’ve always had a soft spot for fairy tales; that’s no secret. But it’s very much becoming apparent that I will never get sick of fairy tale retellings as long as there’s even a minor cosmetic change or insignificant plot twist to keep me engaged, because some stories are just endlessly entertaining to me. Obviously one of them is Cinderella. In just the last year or so, I’ve enjoyed several Cinderella retellings: The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey (which is Cinderella with self-awareness), Cinder by Marissa Meyer (which is Cinderella with cyborgs in space), and now Ash by Malinda Lo (which is Cinderella with lesbians).
Ash is great for a few reasons, one of which is that the setting doesn’t really change much, nor does the plot, but somehow the trappings are still so different that it feels like a very fresh take on the classic tale. Ash (born Aisling) lives in a world where people are no longer fearful of the fairies, their stories of caution becoming legends. Except Ash herself was raised by her mother to believe – and to beware. After her mother’s death, her father’s remarriage, and her father’s death, she becomes involved with a fairy named Sidhean, who has been cursed to fall in love with her. In the meanwhile, Ash is falling in love with the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, after several chance encounters in the woods.
I love the idea of the fairy “godmother” being in love with the Cinderella figure, and of fairies being generally feared by society for this type of story. Because eventually what frees Ash to be with Kaisa is that she convinces Sidhean that if he loves her, he needs to let her go and be happy (because that’s what love is). I love that Ash has literally no interest whatsoever in the Prince (of course, her stepsisters still do, the elder more than the younger, who is not so terrible). Yes, she wants to go to the ball, and yes she even dances with the prince, but she spends the whole time trying to find Kaisa, the huntress. The prince is hardly even a tertiary character in this story. And I absolutely love that two women get to be in love with each other and neither of them die or have anything especially tragic happen (outside of the normal hardships of a Cinderella story) because they’re women in love.
I love the worldbuilding of the kingdom having a tradition of the royal hunt (which obviously is something that existed for a very long time in the real world) and that the leader of the hunt is traditionally always female (fuck yeah). I love that even though Kaisa is much more traditionally “masculine” than Ash, she’s not a brutal or violent figure. When she leads the hunt, they kill only what they require, they do so as swiftly and painlessly as possible, and thanks are given for the animals they must kill. She’s never anything less than gentle with Ash, teaching her to ride a horse and find her way in the woods.
There’s something about Malinda Lo’s writing style, and I don’t know how much was intentionally stylistic for this story and how much is just… how she happens to write, but I felt like this book had a very unusual tone to it. Her word choices were always very precise, her writing is very concise while still feeling almost expansive. This is not a long book by any stretch of the imagination, but it somehow still feels like it’s stretched out, almost artificially lengthened, without ever feeling unnecessarily padded. It’s engrossing, and it’s extremely well-suited to this type of story (the kind of story that everyone knows, and you need to keep them paying attention long enough to show them why this is different). When first reading this book, I wondered if using the word “enchanting” to describe the writing style would be too much, and I think it might be, but it still feels apropos.
There’s certain things that feel strange to praise about this book, because they are so heavily entwined with the classic fairy tale. Yes, I love that Ash is a relatable female protagonist – of course she is; it’s Cinderella. I love that the end message of the story is that true love and kindness can win out over cruelties and tragedies – of course they do; it’s Cinderella. I love that Ash’s goal, throughout the book, is not to find love, but merely to escape her bad situation and love happens along the way – of course it does; it’s Cinderella. But at the same time, these are all things that I expect from a Cinderella story, and I’d be severely disappointed if they weren’t there. These things are the reasons why I love this kind of story, and why I love fairy tales in general.
I had vague hopes that this might be the type of situation where the author retells all kinds of other fairy tales in the same setting (hey, hey, Mercedes Lackey – please write more Tales of the 500 Kingdoms, please), but I can’t always be that lucky. There is a prequel called Huntress, that I am definitely interested in reading (I am Here For badass lady hunters). But other than that, it doesn’t look like Malinda Lo has written anything else in this world. But, you know, if anyone has any recommendations for more lesbian fairy tales, please send them my way, because I need more of this in my life.