Malinda Lo

Hodder (2010)

ISBN: 978-0-340-98837-4

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts, Syndicated May 2010

This one had me at hello. I love retellings of fairytales, and adding bisexual themes to Cinderella instantly made me sit up and take interest. Also, there was buzz, and I do love me some YA fiction that comes with added buzz.

I pre-ordered this beautiful book (isn’t the cover glorious?) and it promptly sat beside my reading chair for months, as Christmas and the post-Christmas haze swallowed up my intensive reading time. I was pretty sure this was one of those books I was going to tear through in a couple of sittings, but I was hesitant to go near it, maybe a little afraid that it wouldn’t life up to the wonderful cover. But this week I had a really bad day – mothered out completely, so sick I could barely see straight (strep throat, not recommended) and I’d had at least two emotional meltdowns by lunch time. I took my baby to daycare, sent my older daughter off to play at my Dad’s place, and in between doctor’s appointments and housecleaning, I gave myself a couple of hour-long sessions to Read A Book.

Yes, books can be medicinally applied.

Ash was what I was hoping for – an elegant, well paced read, combining familiar fairytale elements with well-rounded characters and some awesome original worldbuilding to give it some depth. It’s hard not to compare with Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, who used an obedience curse to explain the passivity of Cinderella. Lo instead chooses the timeless technique of emotional blackmail on behalf of the stepmother, and shows how hard it would be for an unmarried girl to function without the protection of parents in the type of society usually found in fairy tale tradition.

(spoilers for the second part & ending of Ash below)

There are two stories of attraction at the centre of the story – and neither of them are with the prince! Aisling (Ash) escapes her stepmother’s cruelties through her belief in the old fairytales, and discovers a fairy who will grant wishes to aid her regular escapes. But Sidhean – dark, dangerous and no fairy godmother – wants her body in return. Meanwhile, Ash is falling slowly and tentatively in love with Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, who is teaching her about the Hunt, horse-riding, and freedom. The descriptions of the Hunt and how important it is to their culture was one of the elements of the book I most enjoyed – clever worldbuilding is so important to fairytale novels! I also liked the fact that the stepmother and her daughters are portrayed very much as individuals with very strong motives. The dances and balls and dresses all felt like real events rather than vague fairy tale sketches. And of course, while Ash’s attention is focused purely on Kaisa, she accidentally ends up dancing with the prince and abandoning him, putting her in the embarrassing situation of being the most sought-after and jealousy-inspiring woman in the kingdom, despite not having the least bit of interest in marrying the prince!

It’s not a flawless book, by any means. The fact that this is the author’s debut work shows in the final act, where the main conflict that has been telegraphed throughout (how Ash’s promise to Sidhean threatens her budding romance with Kaisa) is dealt with far too briefly, and without much in the way of consequence. Likewise, the interesting situation with the prince is resolved neatly, offstage, when he chooses a different princess – though this actually worked for me, as it showed how the near miss with the prince was of such little importance to Ash compared to everything else that was going on. I would have also liked more resolution with the stepmother, as to whether the things she said about Ash’s father and the debts he left her with were true (more interesting if they were!). A stronger, less vague final act could have made this book truly marvellous.

Nevertheless, I’d rather read a debut book which is flawed but interesting in this many ways, than one which makes more structural sense but has less originality to offer. The writing itself is so vivid and the characters so alive that I can definitely forgive the other parts. Malinda Lo is a wonderful new voice and I will be very excited to see what she has to offer next.