Bingo Update – This is for my Rainbow Flag square. Malinda Lo is out and proud. As an added bonus, this is also a queer retelling of Cinderella, so it’s a queer writer telling a queer story!
I love a good fairy tale re-telling. Contemporary literature is rife with reimaginings, updates, and new spins on old tales told around the fire…but not all of them are good. I’m glad to say that Ash by Melinda Lo *is* good, but it doesn’t quite rise to the ranks of great. It’s definitely a book I wish the half star system existed for, as I’m more inclined to give it 3.5 than 4.
Ash maintains it’s classical setting, a not quite Europe of olden days, where hunts mattered, carriages would take you to a ball, and festivals were important to everyone. It’s very Celtic in its sensibilities, which works in its favor as far as this hibernophile is concerned. Our Cinderella in this version is Aisling, who goes by the nickname Ash before she starts spending time laying by the the sooty banked fire reading in her solitude. The story opens with the death of Ash’s mother and her father’s remarriage to a woman of some stature with two daughters of her own. Ash’s father dies, leaving behind debts that Ash must pay off by serving her stepmother and stepsisters, staying fairly on script for a Cinderella tale. What is interesting is where we replace the fairy godmother and handsome prince of Disney, and how our heroine gains her freedom from servitude.
Doing so, we mix the deeply Celtic Pagan with some historical fiction. There’s a clash of old and new, a variation on the conflict between Pagans and Christians, here represented by greenwitches/the Fae and philosophers. Honestly, the conflict between the two isn’t terribly significant, other than to establish that some people believe one thing, and some another. What *is* important is the Fae and how they affect Ash’s life. She begins a friendship and sort of romance with a Fae named Sidhean (pronounced ‘sheen’) who helps her in a fairy godmother’s stead, but also proves to be our central point of conflict. See, the prince, and even Sidhean, do not represent our heroine’s romantic interest. That honor goes to the King’s Huntress, Kaisa.
I don’t want to get into the details of the plot, so this can stay spoiler free, but I want to talk about these relationships a little. So if you feel that might step on your enjoyment, jump off here.
I don’t know that I truly buy into either of Ash’s romantic entanglements. I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that she has no feelings for Sidhean initially, and the book works hard to make us think she’s starting to feel something for Kaisa, but I don’t think either of those materialize into something compelling. One might argue that the nature of the story being told lends itself to that, and they’d be right. Prince Charming doesn’t even always get a name, let alone compelling chemistry with Cinderella, but we’re expected to swoon for their romance and marriage after one night of dancing. I do think Melinda Lo does a better job than the original at representing what *really* matters; not Cinderella’s or Ash’s heart, but rather, her freedom and sense of self. Sidhean offers Ash an escape, but into another form of bondage. Kaisa offers her nothing but appreciation of herself. In this way, Kaisa is a better choice, even if I don’t feel any particular passion between them. Ash tosses her heart after every passing breeze, which makes sense; she’s been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved. She wants to belong somewhere, to and with someone, but she hasn’t lived a life that lends itself to understanding what that would mean in a healthy way. She takes her time with both partners, something the original tale certainly doesn’t bother with.
My central complaint is that I’m not sure there’s enough ‘there’ there, as they say. It almost feels as if it might benefit from being much shorter. The longer we spend in this world with these characters, but without adding significant depth to them or their relationships, the harder it is to ignore the lightness of the sketch. The prose is solid and evocative, and Ms. Lo’s understanding of Celtic mythology is substantial. The place felt real to me, but the characters never quite got to real dimensionality.
All that said, it’s a good retelling and worth a read, especially if you are searching for more queer representation in your fairy tale lit!