Over the weekend, I read a piece in Writer's Digest on the one and only Gregory Maguire. In it, the writer shares a brilliant quote that perfectly explains for me why fairy tale retellings can be so compelling:
Childhood is the source of the only common language we possess. Why not use it to make a fictional point? Children’s fables and stories supply perhaps the only genuinely universal bank of references that a contemporary adult reading audience might be expected to share. We no longer can rely (if ever we could) upon all readers to pick up allusions to the ancient Greek myths, the Roman orations, the Old Testament histories, the New Testament parables. But we can reasonably assume that saying, ‘I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,’ is going to fall on appreciative ears.”
So when you pick up a book like Ash and start seeing elements like dead parents, a mean stepmother with two daughters, a prince looking for a wife, a ball, and magical fairy help, everyone knows we're revisiting the story of Cinderella. But Lo adds delightful twists to ensure that this isn't the Cinderella you grew up with.
Aisling, called Ash, lives in a country that is somewhat conflicted. The King has invited philosophers from the south into his kingdom, philosophers that are determined to convert the people from believing in fairies to believing in the philosophers' ancient texts. In the cities, the ways of the philosophers begin to take hold, but in rural, out of the way villages close to the dark Wood, tales of fairies live on. So when Ash's mother dies, her father follows the old ways, to ensure her mother's body and soul isn't taken by the fairies - just in case those stories really are true.
Not too long after her mother's death, her father goes on a business trip - and returns with a new stepmother and two stepsisters for Ash, women from the city who find life in the village to be backwards. When Ash's father dies suddenly, her stepmother whisks the family back to civilization, leaving Ash with nothing but a few fairy tale books her mother had once read to her.
In her grief, Ash clings to the fairy tales, seeing them almost as instructional stories, rather than the cautions that even she knows they're intended as. While the stories say never to go into the Wood alone at night, Ash takes every opportunity she can to escape the cruelty of her step-family in the Wood, and eventually meets a fairy of her own: the dangerous and enigmatic Sidhean. Ash knows that joining the fairies is practically a death sentence - but considering her parents are dead, she'd rather be with them and Sidhean than working as a servant for her step-family.
But someone else also wanders in the Wood - the King's Huntress, Kaisa. As Ash grows up and learns to live with her grief bit by bit, she finds herself fascinated with the strong and beautiful Kaisa, and risking everything to be near her - not just the wrath of her stepmother, but her very life as she makes a bargain with Sidhean in order for her deepest wishes in her human life to be granted.
Ash's transformation from a sad and scared little girl to a mature, if risk-taking, young woman is slow and absolutely beautiful. When Ash meets Sidhean, it's totally understandable why she would want to go with him and you fell her frustration when Sidhean repeatedly refuses to take her with him into the fairy realm. But then she meets Kaisa and their relationship is so beautiful that it's heartbreaking when Ash asks Sidhean to help her be with Kaisa, because we know from the stories that Ash has read that fairies never offer something without a price attached.
The repeated use of fairy tales within a fairy tale was a fun device, as different characters would share their favorite fairy tales, giving us a glimpse into their personalities. It also allows us to see part of Ash's growing up process, as Kaisa gives her something to live for in the real world, her tastes in fairy tales changes.
For anyone looking for a truly magical twist on the Cinderella story, Ash is definitely for you. It's also exciting to note that Ash has been nominated for the Morris Award for teen books by previously unpublished authors. I haven't read any of the other nominated titles (how do I read so much and yet still miss titles worthy of these awards?!), but Ash definitely deserves a place on that list.
End of the Day Addition: Work was hectic today so I didn't have a chance to post this earlier, but today the YALSA blog interviewed Malinda Lo! It includes details about early drafts of Ash AND a sequel!