by Malinda Lo
Little, Brown and Company
Review by Melissa Conway
In order to set the stage for this review, I should give you a little information about me. I’m a writer of fiction who recently switched genres from Chick Lit to Young Adult Fantasy/Sci-fi.
There were three reasons I picked this book. First, because of the aforementioned switch, I want to keep abreast of what’s being published in my new genre so I understand the market. Second, Booksquawk was low on young adult review submissions. Third, I was in the bookstore underwhelmed by the glut of young adult vampire novels and overwhelmed by the rather urgent need to get my six-year-old son out of there before he knocked over an entire shelf while I was distracted trying to read the back covers of books.
Ash has eye-catching cover art, the blurb on the back has a short excerpt and three glowing reviews from other authors, and the inside cover has a brief synopsis. Under pressure to hurry, I skimmed the first page, impressed, but then my son, who is in self-imposed training to become a circus clown, sneezed violently and with much spittle into the wooden face of a character painted on a cutout display. That was what decided me on Ash.
The reason I’ve spelled this decision out in such a way is to let you know how it came to be that I had no idea Ash was, as author Malinda Lo describes it on her website, “a lesbian retelling of Cinderella.”
I got halfway through the novel, enjoying it greatly except for a few glaring editing issues, such as, “Ash asked curiously,” when suddenly I started wondering, “Is Ash into this other chick?” I flipped to the end, where [spoiler alert!] it appeared there was a happy ending—and yes, she hooks up with another woman. So I re-read the back cover, where other than a suggestion of intimacy in the short excerpt, it doesn’t really come out and say the story is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. The inside flap would have given me a better idea what to expect, but it too required thoughtful interpretation, and since I was highly distracted when I first glanced at it, well, you know what happened.
If I had known, I probably would have set Ash back on the shelf and moved on to something more suited to a heterosexual who enjoys imagining herself as the heroine. But now that I had it in hand and found it to be a lyrical story that had thus far brought tears to my eyes more than once, I saw no reason not to finish it. After all, gays and lesbians are bombarded with hetero romance in every imaginable medium. If something made me uncomfortable, I could always flip past it.
So I read on.
Ash’s world is a place where fairies are not the Disneyfied caricatures we grew up with, but the more traditional magical creatures out of legend. Instead of a benevolent fairy Godmother, Ash is saddled with a male fairy named Sidhean who, through a curse placed on him by Ash’s own mother in a rather vague plot device, has a crush on her—complete with stalkerish tendancies. He’s powerful and persuasive, and as Ash grows from coddled child to orphaned servant, he convinces her that she will one day be his. Refreshingly, Ash’s world also seems to be a place where same-sex couples are commonplace or even de rigueur; although not free from angst, this is not a coming-out type novel. Even though author Lo sets the stage via Ash’s conviction and Sidhean’s confirmation that she will have a steep price to pay for the favors he grants her (trip to the ball a la Cinderella, etc.), it all ends rather meekly, with hardly a repercussion for her final choice to stay in the human world with her female lover. The love scenes themselves are handled so delicately that I didn’t have to flip past anything at all. With young adult novels all over the board as far as sexual content, Lo could have gone into more detail, but she didn’t; the novel kept descriptions of physical contact to a minimum and they were tender and sweet rather than graphic. The story maintains a dreamy quality throughout, reminiscent of old-style fairy tales.
According to the bio on the back cover, Ash is Lo’s first novel. Usually that means an author has approximately five to ten unpublished manuscripts haunting his/her hard drive. I suspect, based on Lo’s connections in the journalism world and the somewhat unpolished feel of her prose, that this is, indeed, the first novel she’s written. Either way, I could hardly put it down.