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Malinda Lo’s Ash isn’t just a lesbian love story, a faerie tale or even only a retelling of the Cinderella tale; it’s a delicious blend of these genres that combines them in unexpected ways. There is much to praise in the way Lo stitches together these different narrative projects.
Lo’s sexy and mysterious Huntress offers Aisling (Ash for short) a surprising love story. The romance grows out of (mostly) realistic characterizations and situations, which adds an emotional credibility to this love story that lacks in other recent YA SF/F (such as Fisher’s Incarceron or Anderson’s Feed). Believable tension builds between the two women, on physical and emotional levels. “She raised her eyes, and there was a warmth, an invitation, in Kaisa’s face that she had not expected. She felt herself respond to it, a flush of heat rising inside her” reads one typical passage, a vibrant description of Ash’s attraction after pages and pages of dialogue between Ash and Kaisa that have all the wit and parry of the best intellectual seduction. They even have believable conflict as Ash decides for herself how to live her life independently. The other remarkable thing about the character of the Huntress is that she does duty as a pillar of Lo’s world-building, in addition.
The description of Ash’s world is rich at the macro level, but some imaginative readers may be disappointed at the lack of a rich magical or fantasy world with its own rules. This world is somewhat like our middle ages, but differs, too, especially in terms of gender. The Huntress represents the King, and is the closest this book comes to establishing a mythology for this imaginary kingdom. Her position as a powerful leader is unique and an excellent addition to the feminist YA canon. But the entire world is not necessarily a feminist one, which occasionally makes the Huntress seem tacked into the scenery. I hope Lo’s future novels look less to the classical fairytale structure for setting and more toward an original, speculative or fantasy world for her characters to inhabit.
The lesbian romance builds believably and is normative in this world, despite the ways in which the setting approximates the middle ages in Europe. Ash’s eventual relationship is a great example of what should become the trend: queer characters in YA who don’t have to suffer through awkward coming out scenes in print. Readers (especially teens) will benefit from Lo’s choice to make her world a place where confident and skilled lesbians occupy prominent positions of leadership.
Instead of a fairy godmother, Ash has a faery familiar called Sidhean. Sidhean is attractive but so sinister it was hard to read him in the fairy godmother role he approximates. That the smart and inventive Ash, however naive she may be, might fall for the trick of his faery seduction is a testament to Lo’s prose. He ends up somewhere between fairy godmother and outright villain in this story, with a heavy dose of creepy older boyfriend, which does provide a few genuine scares in this book.
Lo captures some of the base savagery that cuts through the original Brothers Grimm Aschenputtel tale, and manages to infuse the story with a feminist and romantic love story aimed at the YA reader. It speaks honestly of girls and women and the Huntress stands alongside Katnis (from Collin’s excellent Hunger Games) as one of the best women characters in the last few years of YA fiction. Ash is an excellent alternative for fantasy readers looking to go beyond Meyer’s Twilight or Rowling’s Harry Potter.
by Malinda Lo
Little Brown Books for Young Readers