I honestly can’t believe I’ve never read this before. It’s sat on my shelf for absolutely ages, but I suppose I thought it was going to be a bit Twilight-y, given the cover and the sort of thing that was popular when it came out. To my delight, it’s a gorgeously spooky forest-and-fae fairy tale, with a F/F relationship!
Book: Ash by Malinda Lo
Read before: Shockingly, no
Ownership: Hard copy
I’m actually kind of glad I didn’t read this until now, because I’ve written a short story with a lot of the same elements, and I’m glad it came out of my brain and not out of a love of this book! That should probably indicate that this was a perfect read for me. It starts as a retelling of Cinderella, but the gorgeously detailed atmosphere is what keeps this so compelling while the basic blocks of the story are built up. This is a world with a tension between the old ways of magic and the advancement of medicine; there are those who believe in the fairies and those who don’t. The Wood looms large in the early scenes, and the magical happenings are so well-framed that you question whether there truly are fairies, or whether Ash’s grief at her mother’s death has sent her a little mad.
Ash believes in the old tales fiercely and almost protectively. She is a very broken character who looks to the fairies as her salvation, and her frustration with them for not saving her mother is exquisitely written. There’s a lot of Grimm heroine in Ash – she is slightly unknowable, slightly aloof from the rest of the world – but this doesn’t mean she isn’t wonderful to read about. I found her extremely easy to identify with (and not just because she almost shares my name). That desperate search for magic is really believable.
The story takes a swing well away from the Cinderella motifs once Ash meets Kaisa, though. I have to say that as a love interest, Kaisa didn’t really do it for me, as she is quite loosely sketched, and I couldn’t really see why Ash fell in love with her other than ‘she’s awesome, obviously’. I wanted to know more about why the hunts always have a female leader. What was Kaisa’s background? She has one of the most important positions in the kingdom, and we don’t see much of the workings of it. I think if this book had been written today, it might well have been dual-POV because Kaisa would make an awesome heroine in the style of Katsa from Graceling or Alosa from Daughter of the Pirate King. Still, I love that she exists at all as a love interest, and the interactions between Kaisa and Ash were super cute.
(Personally, as usual, I was rooting for the wrong side of the love triangle, but no spoilers! Though it’s ambiguous, I’m choosing to add Ash to my list of bi people in fantasy…)
It really bears repeating that the descriptions and atmosphere in this book are simply amazing. From the embroidery on people’s cuffs, to the shiver of light through the trees of the wood, this is a richly detailed and gorgeous world. I could imagine everything so vividly. It’s a beautiful, Grimm world book that manages to hold tightly to that classic, creepy fairytale feel, while also queering the story just wonderfully.
Four out of five cats, and an insistence that anyone who loves retellings give this a go if they haven’t!