088 – Ash by Malinda Lo

Purchase Ash from Amazon.com - 100% worth it 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.
Well that was a breath of fresh air. I think…I think I actually enjoyed reading this book.

surprise
BRING FORTH THE LIST, in which SPOILERS are present. Mostly in the part about the ending.

  • Ash
  • What is this, a main character I don’t want to punch? OH MY GOD, FETCH THE PHOTOGRAPHERS, THIS MOMENT MUST BE COMMEMORATED.

    Seriously though, I actually really liked Ash. She was real. Multifaceted. Capable of being more than one thing at any given time. Also she had an arc, you guys. A real-live arc, where she changed and made mistakes and got called out on shit and learned more about herself. YES. THIS. WOULD LIKE MORE OF THIS. A+

    In fact, this book is kinda entirely arc-based. The conflicts and resolutions revolve more than usual around Ash’s evolving understanding of herself and her relationships with other people, which is kind of a mixed bag in terms of execution, but I’ll get to that later. For now: yay, Ash. Even when I didn’t agree with what you were doing, I generally understood why you were doing it.

  • So Many Ladies
  • Yessss, there were so many ladies in this book. So many ladies, in such varying shades, which is really the important part. The women of Ash come in so many flavors – they are kind and cruel and loving and negligent, cheerful and sullen and quiet and smart, in differing degrees, and sometimes – gasp – all of those things. Some are allies, some are indifferent, and some are outright adversarial, but that is all okay, and you know why? Because there are so goddamn many of them. There isn’t just one or two ways to be a woman in Ash. There are dozens.

    It worked out pretty well, reading Ash immediately after Cinder, because the former answered a question the latter had left me pondering: is it fair to call a Cinderella retelling out on heinous Alpha Bitch syndrome? Because I mean, the evil stepsisters and evil stepmother are key components to the conflict in a Cinderella tale, and the role that they play is a large part of what makes a Cinderella story identifiable. Is it even possible to incorporate that element (with Cinderella as hero), without actively condoning that kind of harmful characterization? Is it possible to create a truly girl-positive adaptation of the classic Cinderella story?

    Turns out, YEP. You totally can, and it’s not even hard. You just have to write characters who are human beings.

    So our Cinderella still has two step-sisters. One is cruel, one is kinder, but they are both treated like people who exist beyond their given role of making Ash’s life miserable. They have their own goals and problems, triumphs and miseries, and the most important part is that Ash both recognizes and acknowledges this.

    So we can still have a sister who is mostly mean to Ash and takes advantage of her position and does incredibly unkind, petty things, but we are also shown that same girl when she is scared, when she is love-struck, when she is anxious about her future. She is more than just a caricature reduced to her simplest, most unflattering characteristic.

    Similarly, there’s a bit with Ash and her “nice” step-sister, where- well, I’m just going to quote.

    That night as Ash was unlacing Clara from her corset and helping her prepare for bed, Ash offered, “You don’t have to do as they say, you know.”

    Clara glanced at her stepsister out of the corner of her eye and said, “That’s quite something — for you to be telling me that.”

    Ash frowned. “You are in a better position than I am, Clara.”

    “How so? I am the younger daughter of a gentlewoman with little to her name but her name — and I doubt that you understand just where the Quinn family ranks at court. It is not a position worth envying.”

    “You have access,” Ash insisted […] “You do not need to follow Ana’s method of securing a future for yourself.”

    “Access to what?” Clara asked, pulling her nightgown on.

    “Access to…to court,” Ash said. Seeing her stepsister eye her skeptically, she rushed on. “I only mean that you do not need to marry for wealth. You could do anything—on your own—you could earn your keep a different way.”

    “How? I am a gentlewoman’s daughter. I have no trade.” She turned to face her stepsister, hands on her hips, but she did not seem bitter. “I do not deny that my mother and sister can be a bit…single-minded, but what would you have me do?”

    Ash went to put the corset into the wardrobe, and said, “I— you could— you could learn a trade. You could apprentice with…a merchant.”

    “A merchant!” Clara exclaimed, as if the idea were ludicrous. “Like your father?”

    “I said apprentice, not marry,” Ash said sharply.

    “I do not object to marrying well,” Clara said simply, and looked at Ash curiously. “Do you?”

    “I simply do not believe it is right to pursue someone because — because he is high-born, or has a station above yours, or can buy you a manor house in Royal Forge,” Ash said, increasingly impassioned. “What if it does not end in the way you hoped for? You would only appear to be a grasping fool. And even worse, you would be…you would be false.”

    Clara laughed. “Not everyone can be as true as you seem to be,” she said, and the words were tinged with condescension.

    Ash bristled at the tone in her stepsister’s voice. She turned away to close the wardrobe door, asking tersely, “Do you require anything else tonight?”

    “No,” said Clara. But as Ash left, she called out, “Don’t be angry, Ash.”
    There are so many things going on in this scene that make me happy. First, I love that Clara – the “nice sister” – is given a moment to be less so, without being completely villainized for it. I love the acknowledgement that Clara and her family are facing different challenges that have nothing to do with Ash. And I love that Ash – and by extension, the reader – get this truth bomb dropped on us, like, maybe Clara doesn’t want to be rescued or set free. Maybe Clara and Ash want different things from life, and maybe their different approaches to getting these things are not inherently better or worse than one another. And hey, Ash, maybe you’re being kind of an asshole for wanting her feel to bad about it.

    I could honestly probably go on about this particular dichotomy between Cinder and Ash and how that relates to the way women are characterized in YA in general for, like, ever, but I won’t because this review was supposed to be short and it’s starting to not be.

    The point is, I feel like Malinda Lo is putting a lot more confidence in her readers. She is trusting us to be able to simultaneously root for Ash and have empathy for her tormenters. She’s trusting and encouraging us not to hate other female characters just because they’re there, or we “should”, or they want the same thing as our protagonist, or a different thing, or are standing in our protagonist’s way. Woman does not automatically equal enemy in Ash the way it does in so many other books.

    I feel like Ash is saying, “Hey, maybe we should all just be kinder to one another because shit sucks and internalized misogyny doesn’t help anyone.”

    OR AT LEAST THAT’S WHAT I GOT OUT OF IT.

    Bonus: Ash puts a shitton of emphasis on the relationship between Ash and her mother and Ash’s battle to get over her death, and that is fucking awesome, because mother-daughter relationships in YA, where u at?

  • Also, There was Romance
  • …and it was yet another aspect that I enjoyed, which is probably a good thing, since the second half of the book is devoted almost exclusively to developing it. But yeah, it really worked for me. I’ve read complaints that there was too little of Kaisa and half the book wasn’t enough to develop her relationship with Ash, and while I, too, wish Kaisa had been in the book longer, I’m completely satisfied with the way their relationship played out.

    The problem I run in to most often with romantic relationships in paranormal whatnot is that they’re very often reliant on destiny and insta!love to bring and keep a couple together, and I’m always like, “OH MY GOD, what are you kids thinking?!? You literally just met like two sentences ago!” But with Ash, there’s a real feeling of time here – time and progression. Kaisa and Ash are initially attracted to one another, yes – even though Ash, at least, doesn’t immediately realize it – but they spend time together after that, specifically for the purpose of getting to know one another. It just works so much better for me, because I can legitimately buy the bond that they form and the attachment that they begin to feel to one another.

    It probably helps that I sort of loved Kaisa, possibly more than I liked Ash? She’s endlessly patient and compassionate, charming and kind – a YA love interest, kind! WHAT A NOVEL IDEA, RIGHT. Anyway, she doesn’t play games, she’s up front about all of her intentions, but doesn’t push or press or guilt, and she’s in no way ashamed of Ash or their love. She’s just an all-around solid LI.

    Bonus: the book doesn’t rely on snark to communicate attraction, and my god that was refreshing. I mean, I’m down with snarky love as much as the next person, but seriously, there is more than one way for couples to interact.

  • Sidhean
  • This dude was criminally under-developed. Am I supposed to have cared about Sidhean? Because I didn’t. I would have liked to. I would have liked to have known more about him, to feel like he was actually some sort of character, rather than a pretty mannequin who just followed Ash around. I think that would have given Ash’s emotional conflict more weight. But fuck, maybe that’s the point. Maybe Sidhean is just supposed to be some pretty, inscrutable symbol who doesn’t really matter beyond his symbolic significance to Ash.

    Wait, did Malinda Lo just write a dude the way most dudes write women?

    High five!

  • Fairytales & World-Building
  • I actually find these two aspects of the story to be simultaneously two of the strongest and weakest elements of the story. WORLD-BUILDING. It’s hard. Especially for a book set in a time and place that is very different from our own – which, in Ash’s case, is Quasi-Fantastical Medieval-landia. Nobody likes exposition, so how do you communicate the history and culture of your setting, relevant to the plot and characters, without awkwardly staging a long series of boring info-dumps that will put your readers to sleep? Well, if you’re Malinda Lo writing Ash, you use fairytales!

    It’s a really engaging and clever strategy, imo, because folk tales are a perfect venue for all of the information that Lo needs to get to us, and she works them into the culture, backstory, and Ash’s interests skillfully enough that their prevalence and frequency isn’t completely out of place. Seriously, it’s like world-building magic, man. You need to establish what the relationship between humans and fairies is like? There’s a folk tale for that! Want to communicate where the King’s Huntresses stand in cultural consciousness? Here, have a fairytale. Want to show how girl and girl love is totally cool and accepted among the populace? I have just the epic lesbian romance!

    It’s a good idea. The stories were never boring, they always revealed something – about the culture, about a character, about the book’s themes – and they gave Ash’s world the kind of flavor that you don’t always find in these kinds of novels.

    The proooooooooblem for me was that the world that Lo created here, via both Ash’s stories and what we see in the novel proper, is weirdly inconsistent. I don’t feel like I’m getting the whole picture, and I don’t really understand how it’s supposed to work.

    I’m not usually one to care about how history and politics and shit have shaped this kind of alternate universe, but the gender dynamics especially are so inconsistent that they left a bunch of questions gnawing at the back of my mind. Like, where exactly do we stand in terms of gender equality, here? How do we have a traditionally masculine role like the Hunter, which apparently comes along with a fair amount of respect and influence, that in Ash, traditionally belong to women, and yet it’s still implied that noble-born women like Ash’s sisters’ are exclusively encouraged to “marry up” in wealth and status? Why is totally normal for two girls to make out in the street, and the Huntress to dance with a woman at the king’s ball, yet I didn’t once hear anything about even the possibility of high-born girls marrying another woman for money instead of a dude? Is it because women don’t hold positions of power in this kingdom? Is Huntress the exception? Why?

    They sort of implied in the first chapter that the kingdom is in some sort of transition, with the greenwitches losing influence to the not-Christian dudes, but that bit of conflict seemed to have gotten dropped after it served its purpose getting Ash’s father killed, so I’m not sure what to make of it.

    It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but I felt like we spent so much time with the mythological side of things – fairytales, fae, yadda yadda – that I couldn’t get a very good hold on the real world, and I actually find that part more interesting. I’m hoping they’ll expand on this a bit more in Huntress, so fingers crossed.

  • So the Writing
  • Talk about mixed bags. The first chapter of Ash was incredibly awkward. I mentioned earlier that the fairytale thing was a clever idea for cutting down on exposition, and it is, but it does not cover everything. Like the entire first chapter of Ash is purely exposition, exposition and awkward dialogue that could have come out of the Ye Olde Speake-a-Tron 5000, it was so generic and mechanical and wooden.

    The prose is…disconcerting to say the least. The story is told in an oddly distant third-person perspective, probably on purpose, because it reads the way your average fairy tale does – once upon a time, there was a girl who lived in a cabin, etc etc. I get the idea, but the execution is off-putting. Despite the fact that we’re privy to Ash’s general thoughts and emotions, there’s still a barrier there, between us and her, and you can feel it. Ash and her world feel further away, and it took a while for me to adjust to that.

    While I do feel that the first chapter was as awkward and stilted, I can’t really speak with certainty on whether it got objectively better, or if I just grew accustomed to it. That’s a thing that happens for me. It’s a problem. I’m sorry. I can say that even though we had nice instances of things being shown to us rather than explicitly told – like the acceptance of same-sex love, for example – Ash’s emotional state was a long series of declarative statements that drove me up the wall.

    That being said, Lo has mood control out the wazoo. Every scene had a palpable feeling to it, and elicited an almost involuntary emotional response in a way that almost never happens for me xD So that was nice.

  • Paaaaaaaaaaaaciiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggg
  • Soooo remember how I said earlier that Ash is a character-driven book and not so much with the plot? Yeah. That. I mean, I appreciate the effort to sketch out Ash’s life, to connect us to her from the very start of her troubles, and to give the weight of time to her relationship with Sidhean, but I’ve come to realize that I am kind of a plot person, and holy damn I spent the entirety of Part One waiting for it to start. Not that I didn’t enjoy my time, mostly, but the book really didn’t get off the ground for me until the plot kicked off in the beginning of Part Two, which is halfway through.

  • Dat Bargain
  • The bargain. The bargain made me headdesk. I mean, I can kind of rationalize Ash’s mental state when she made it, but OH MY GOD I just wanted to shake her, because it seemed like she made the deal without considering why she was desperate enough to agree to it, and that was just like, all the facepalms.

    And then she did it again. The second time actually boggles my mind less than the first – after all, in for a penny, in for a pound, right? – but still. CRINGE. YOU MAKE POOR DECISIONS, KID.

    I feel like it’s entirely possible that the bargain was just there because we had like zero other conflict in this book that couldn’t be easily resolved by Ash just flipping her antagonists off, and that doesn’t make for much of a climax, so we got this supposedly more difficult to resolve problem to up the stakes.

    But then it turned out to be not actually be that much of a problem xD.

  • Dat Ending
  • Okay I lied, if I have any real bone to pick with Ash, it’s that fucking ending. Oh my god. Okay okay okay, I’m very happy that Kaisa and Ash got their happily ever after, I really am, but what the fuckkkk, man? Was there any consequence to any of the things that Ash did? Any of the very foolish things? Because it seems like if you were to get yourself into debt with a fairy to the point that you basically signed away your life, twice, it should be harder to get out of it than to just be like “Hey, no, I changed my mind.” I mean, I get that she had to spend some time with him, and that for Ash, it was longer than one night, but for readers? It was a break between paragraphs. We don’t see any of the time spent together, and we don’t see Ash deal mentally or emotionally with the presumably years she spent away from her world and from Kaisa. We just turn to the next page, where we find that when she comes back the next night, Kaisa is waiting for her, and happily ever after, the end. BUT BUT BUT, WHERE IS THE PAYOFF?

    Thing is, I like the idea of the resolution. I like Sidhean being forced to pay for thousands of years of being a dick by being rejected by someone he loves. I like that Ash is able to collect on his dickery and use it to her advantage. But after chapters of build-up on the tension of Ash signing her life away, wondering, Oh fuck, how is she going to clever her ass out of this one?, the payoff is almost nothing. It’s like –

    sigh

    Oh. Okay. :/

So…that was Ash. It wasn’t a perfect book by any means, but most of the problems that I had with it were in retrospect. I enjoyed the book a great deal while I was reading it, and I’d still recommend the shit out of it. And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go read Huntress.

four stars


 

3 Responses

  1. Khitty Hawk

    May 4, 2014 2:42 pm, Reply

    Ah, you liked it as well as I did!

    I don’t have much to add, save that I didn’t think Sidhean felt like he was written the way dudes write women; I thought he was a parody of the mythical stalker YA love interest. He follows Ash around and falls in love for no reason, giving Ash a choice between dangerous fairy tale infatuation with Sidhean and real love with Kaisa.

    I was disappointed by Huntress, though, but that might have been the state of mind I read it in. I’ll not say anything further and let you read it with a fresh mind.

    • Cyna Cyna

      May 6, 2014 2:46 am, Reply

      Ah, that’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about it that way, and in contrast to the time spent developing the relationship with Kaisa, it makes sense that Sidhean would remain more of an idea.

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts, then! I just finished Huntress, and in some respects liked it more than Ash. In others, not so much lol

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