Ash takes place in a kingdom steeped in fairy tales and is itself a retold Cinderella, to the point where the book reads like a fairy tale in novel form: characterization is light, the prose is more evocative than immersive, and in the end there’s not a lot of tension to be had. But that doesn’t stop Ash from being emotionally compelling, and for that reason it succeeds.
Aisling, or Ash as she goes by for the majority of the book, is twelve when her mother dies of sickness, and within a year her father remarries and dies himself of a fever. This standard backstory lasts the first quarter to third of the book, and is a drag in comparison to the rest of the book; Ash spends the time at a younger age, leaving her less interesting as a character, and with the exception of Malinda Lo’s reimagining of the fairy involvement (where the fairy godmother is turned into a mysterious, dangerous fairy man named Sidhean) there’s not much new going on. The section is carried by Lo’s exquisite prose, but I can’t help but think that it would have worked better if it were cut down and put in flashback, even if that would disrupt the fairy tale feel of the novel.
The roughly-medieval kingdom’s culture is a wholly believable land that once may have coexisted with fairies, as its culture and superstition is inseparable from fairies. Throughout the book, fairy tales created for the book are told, and resonate thematically and creatively. These invented fairy tales are a great authorial choice that enrich both the world and the story, and Ash’s book of fairy tales given to her by her father is one of the more important links between the early section of the book and the rest of it.
By the end of the first part of the book (which is split evenly by its two parts, The Fairy and The Huntress), the plot picks up into new, interesting territory, and Ash begins to shine. The book is easily at its best when it diverges from the source story: Sidhean isn’t a character called dangerous by the narrative but who has no teeth, but genuinely is worrisome every time he appears, and his contribution to the iconic ball is a bargain, not an act of kindness; and, even more interestingly, Malinda Lo makes the addition of the huntresses. These women lead hunts all over the land, and Ash comes to meet the King’s Huntress, Kaisa, who replaces the prince as the love interest of the story. The relationship between her and Ash is, like most of the character work in the book, light, but a pivotal moment still left me grinning, so it works well enough considering their relationship is primary, but not exclusive, to the themes of self-discovery and -confidence for Ash.
After all, there’s a reason the book is named after her. It’s almost impossible not to root for Ash with her requisite upbringing as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters, the younger of which isn’t incorrigible but nevertheless not a great deal of support. Ash carries on at first because of nightly walks with Sidhean, who she wishes to escape with to perhaps, somehow, find her mother in the fairy realm, or at least live there rather than in her cruel existence. Then she meets Kaisa and finds happiness and independence in the real world, and her arc, while subtle in my first read, is what makes the book work on a deeper level.
Ash drags in its beginning, and its fairy tale trappings sometimes prevent it from being as deep as it could be, but its reinvention of the Cinderella story is as enchanting as it is masterful, significantly shifting the plot while maintaining the majority of its traditional trappings. It’s with very few caveats that I heartily recommend the book.