Review: Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash cover artist unkown


Ash is a deft fairytale; a story in its own right though it draws heavily on various versions of Cinderella. I would hesitate to refer to it as a re-telling, as much of any fairytale’s uniqueness lies in the detail, and here both detail and larger themes have been changed.

Told through simple language with moments of stunning beauty, this book has a certain fragile quality to it; as if the novel itself were a part of Faery and might disappear at any second. It is an exploration of growing up, of the ties that hold us together and learning how to let go, and most of all of finding oneself.

Time passes in uneven waves throughout the novel, so that a significant day may take place over several pages, or two years pass in a paragraph. Although not an uncommon attitude to time in fantasy, for some reason it particularly stood out in this novel, perhaps because this is really a fairy-story masquerading as an ordinary fantasy novel, and the strange pace of time served as a reminder of that.

Aisling is the main character, though she is mostly known as Ash. I never quite felt connected with her, though I was captivated by her struggles, by her strength and her recklessness. She was a protagonist whom I truly believed was a teenager, someone that I could easily imagine meeting. Particularly credible was the realistically long time through which she mourned her parents, and the way that her grief came and went in tides while the rest of the story moved on.

The setting is a country in a state of slow transition, of quiet struggle between the ancient and native beliefs in magic and the imported beliefs of coldly logical philosophers. It is a well-defined and graciously realised backdrop that gently mirrors Ash’s own conflicts. Malinda Lo seems to effortlessly conjure this reality in such a way that one never questions the presence of these separate traditions existing alongside each other, a truly remarkable feat.

It is worth mentioning the Wood, a vast forest that stretches throughout the kingdom and is ever at the edge of the story, changing over distance but always there. Its presence becomes almost a character in itself.

Lady Isobel, stepmother to Ash and mother to Ana and Clara, was a true fairytale villain. We never gained insight into her motives, and she remained inexplicably cruel and petty. She was a small tyrant, powerful in her home but foundering outside it. She made her largest impact in her moments of personal vindictiveness.

There is a Prince in this story, but he is of no direct importance to Ash. Instead there is the Faery Knight Sidhean (which in my head I pronounce Shi –theen, though this is probably wrong); an otherworldly benefactor with complex motives behind helping Ash, and who, unlike the more familiar Fairy Godmother, requires payment.

He seems at times to be totally beyond humanity, incapable of cruelty or kindness in the same way that a thunderstorm has no malice-it just exists. Then at moments he is the most painfully human of all the characters, and it is this contradiction that is most fascinating about him.

There is also Kaisa the Huntress. She is earthy and solid, part of the world to which Ash belongs. Much of her charm lies in her un-presuming air; here is a woman who holds the most important station available to any woman in this kingdom, a woman who plans hunts and provides the Palace with their meat and entertainment. Yet she asks to spend time with Ash when she could demand. One gets the feeling that she half-expects to be refused, and that if she was she would bow out decorously. She is interesting, full of stories and knowledge that she shares freely.

It is from the difference between these two relationships, Ash and Sidhean and Ash and Kaisa, that much of the story is woven. As I have no desire to reveal overmuch, I leave that subject there except to say that it was a relief to read of bisexuality presented in such a matter-of-fact way. In the world that the author has created, bisexuality is the norm and so is never presented as an issue.

Tension arises not because one of the people that Ash loves is a woman, but because she finds herself in love with two people who are both of vastly different social status than herself. I can only applaud Malinda Lo’s mature approach.

Most of the strengths of this novel lay in its smaller moments. There were strong descriptions of parties, hunts, the day-to-day grind of servant’s work, but the pieces that left the deepest impressions were often the shortest. A red banner left on Ash’s Father’s grave in place of a stone still flaps in my mind. Precious minutes of clarity between Ash and her younger stepsister, Clara, contributed to the novel’s individual taste, as did the outburst from the older stepsister Ana in which some of her fears and thoughts are revealed.

Completely rooted in my head is a piece of dialogue, somewhere toward the end, when Ash is discussing her payment to Sidhean for his help. She asks:

“Will I die?”

to which he replies:

“Only a little.”

And this conversation simply will not leave me.

I must admit to being relatively indifferent to this book at the beginning, though I grew to enjoy it more and more as Ash became sure-footed. By the end I felt involved and sated, won over by its quiet oddness and its twisting of convention and, in no small part, the manner in which characters told each other stories.

This happened often and deepened the reader’s understanding of the characters telling and the characters listening, of the world and their culture, and they were genuinely enjoyable on their own.

The novel did occasionally waver, as if uncertain of what it was trying to do, and my copy contained quite a number of typos, which I found irritating. However this is a strange gem of a book that truly only suffered because I am too old to read it.

It was an intriguing read that gently touched upon the turmoil of becoming yourself, and there was always a sense of more happening beneath the surface than the reader was told in words. I recommend it, and shall continue to selfishly hope that Malinda Lo will someday write with a slightly older audience in mind.


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