“But even if magic was so rare it was more like myth than reality, the people of that country still loved their fairy tales.”
When Aisling’s mother dies, she is heartbroken. Her father remarries quickly and unexpectedly, bringing his new wife and her two daughters to live with them in the house in Rook Hill, at the edge of the Wood. Then her father dies as well, and Aisling is left alone with her strange new family. Abused by her stepmother, Aisling loses herself in fairy tales, reading and rereading her favourite stories. Defying all caution, she takes long walks in the Wood, hoping to be stolen away by the fairies. But a powerful fairy lord who calls himself Sidhean makes himself her protector, denying her desire. Thus able to pass safely in the Wood, she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Aisling owes Sidhean for the wishes he has granted her, but with Kaisa in her life, she is suddenly reluctant to pay.
Malinda Lo’s Ash uses many of the elements of the various versions of the Cinderella story, while also incorporating a magical wood, a common set piece in many other fairy tales. Lo’s world-building exceeds what you might normally find in a fairy tale, incorporating the role of the King’s Huntress and fleshing out the kingdom that surrounds the story. And Lo’s fairies have the bite of the older tales, rather than the fluffier friendliness of Cinderella’s Disney godmother. Sidhean has long protected Aisling from the other fairies, telling her it isn’t time, but he seems to constantly struggle with the temptation to take her himself, complicating matters.
By tweaking the traditional narrative, Lo also interrogates the idea of marrying for money. Both Aisling’s father and her stepmother marry with this high on their minds. Aisling’s father because his business is in trouble, and her stepmother because she cannot offer her daughters the advantages she thinks they deserve with only her inheritance to live on. Each is bitterly disappointed and Aisling pays the price. Her oldest step-sister Ana is under tremendous pressure to marry well in order to remedy the situation. There are several interesting exchanges between Aisling and her younger stepsister, Clara, who is caught up in the romantic idea of marrying a prince, serving as reminder to Aisling that some people want the things that hold no appeal for her.
Throughout the tale, Ash explores the theme of home, and how home is not a place, but the people who love you. Aisling finds herself following the paths of the Wood back to Rook Hill several times to visit her mother’s grave. But of course, her mother isn’t really there, and the house in Rook Hill is empty. It is no longer home without her parents, but nor is Lady Isobel’s house home, because the Quinn family does not love her. This theme is especially apt for a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, since many LGBT people are rejected by their family of origin, and end up making their own family. Aisling’s world does not seem to share this stigma, but nor has her home been a loving one since her mother’s death.
Ash is an understated retelling of Cinderella, made up of a good blend of the traditional fairy tale and Lo’s own reinvention and additions. But it is the sweet, slow-burning romance at the heart of the tale that gives this retelling life.
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