Last week, we looked at Huntress; now it’s time to review the sequel. Except this book was actually published first, meaning I guess Huntress was a prequel? Well, either way, it’s time to sweep open Ash, by Malinda Lo.
In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.
The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.
Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.
Ash is, at its core, a retelling of the classic fairy tale Cinderella, with only two real differences. The first is that, rather than a benevolent fairy godmother, Ash’s benefactor is Sidhean, an intimidating lord of the Fair Folk who would claim ownership of Ash’s life for eternity in exchange for granting her wishes. The second is that, rather than falling in love with the prince, Ash’s affections are directed towards the King’s Huntress. Kaisa.
Ash makes for an interesting contrast with Huntress. My biggest complaint about Huntress was the lack of a happy ending for the lesbian couple, who were forced to separate at the end due to contrived plot bullshit. Ash has exactly the “happily ever after” ending that I wanted; yet on the whole, I believe it the inferior of the two. A satisfying ending can’t save an unsatisfying story, and Ash has a major problem with its plot: namely, the lack of stakes or tension. In Huntress, nature is out of balance due to the rise of a powerful evil fairy sorceress and the whole world might be destroyed if the protagonists don’t stop her. In Ash, the protagonist has a mean stepmother and mean stepsisters. Which is unfortunate for her, sure, but doesn’t quite approach the same level of narrative tension. Sure, Lady Isobel ticks all the boxes on the “wicked stepmother” checklist, but it’s never seriously implied that Ash’s life is in danger, let alone the continued existence of the world. In the end, Ash just walks away from her abuse, without even so much as a final confrontation.
Perhaps, then, the menacing antagonist is meant to be Sidhean, who lays claim to Ash’s soul in exchange for the Cinderella magic he performs on her behalf. The book of fairy tales Ash reads is certainly full of tales about humans being abducted by fairies or being trapped forever in their world by eating their food or being driven to ruin by their glamour or somesuch. But this, too, falls flat. As a child, Ash repeatedly travels into the forest and actively seeks the fairies out, doing everything that the stories warn against: going to her mother’s grave at midnight, following the moonlit path in the woods, entering the faerie ring, eating and drinking faerie food, on and on and on. And each time, Sidhean does not capitalize on the opportunity to kill her or abduct her or claim her immortal soul; instead, he repeatedly sends her safely home with warnings not to come back. He is simply far too benevolent towards her to function as an antagonist.
I wish I could give Ash a good review. I want more books with lesbian protagonists who actually end up with their love interests instead of dying or being separated, and I wish over novels would emulate Ash in that regard. But only in that regard, for Ash is the inverse of the other books about I so often complain: instead of a good story with a disappointing ending for the lesbian partners, it’s a happy ending attached to a disappointingly bad story. And the muddled mess which occupies the majority of the pages of the book is just too bland and uninteresting for me to overlook. There’s no joy in a happily ever after when I never really got invested in the characters or interested in their struggle; so, on a fundamental storytelling level, Ash simply fails at what it was attempting.
As much as I prefer it were otherwise, you can sweep Ash into the dustbin.
Final Rating: 2/5