Ash

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. [X]

Do I have to begin with a spoiler alert? Because I am fairly sure that as far as plot goes, you guys may already know what’s what. In any case, please assume that anything below this point contains spoilers.

Here’s the thing. For the longest time, I told myself that I did not like romance as a genre. It was predictable. It was a white girl and a white boy who embraced on covers. It was something I have never felt. Hmm. Correction. It was something I have never felt I could be a part of. It was “girly”.*

Ash, like many other books I have decided to approach with an open mind for this month, is simultaneously all of the above and none of the above. And therein, I think, lies the brilliance of today’s YA scene and, in particular, Malinda Lo.

It’s funny to say this but I’ve been a fan of Malinda Lo’s since before I read any of her books. This is purely because of the blog that she co-founded with Cindy Pon- Diversity in YA. She’s also done some excellent articles for writers on issues of representation, on avoiding offensive stereotypes, on love triangles, and on the creation of secondary worlds. All very interesting and certainly worth reading … but I need to get back to the point i.e. the brilliance of Ash.

So, on the issue of predictability- honestly, going by just the summary I came to the following conclusions:

  1. Love Triangle: Ugh.
  2. Huntress Wins Ash’s Heart: Yes. Good.

Factually, technically, these two things happened. There was a love triangle. (Briefly, a love … square?) And in the end, Ash does end up with a huntress. However, here are some of the things you don’t get when you assume you know everything. (And by “you”, I totally mean me, and I was an idiot, okay?)

For instance, the Love Triangle:

  • It is actually a plot device that works in this scenario. It works because Malinda Lo crafted her fantastical world to be void of homophobia. Which means that while Lo examines issues of class and abuse, the society is not a heteronormative one. This may be a deal-breaker for some, but one must consider that perhaps the point of Ash is to present, quite simply, a fairy tale romance (with a menacing emphasis on the word “fairy”). This is not meant to be a problem novel. It is not a coming out novel. This is a fantasy and a romance where, for once, a character’s sexual preferences make her neither a poster girl nor a villain. She gets to be herself. Ash. And somehow, I find that comforting. As Malinda Lo asserts: “Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.” I am not saying, of course, that all fantasy and science-fiction ought to be a prejudice-free zone. I am saying that not all of them have to be and it still might work- as it did in this case.
  • Having this interesting, safe space for queer characters does also present another challenge i.e. making sure that Ash does not come off as a manipulative character (as bisexual characters sometimes do), and that who she picks does not define her identity- sexual or otherwise. It is, I feel, a challenge that Lo rises to.
  • Kaisa/Ash: Haha, their ship’s name is Kash. Kaisa does not “win” anything. She does not fight for Ash. She does not try and protect her. Ash is the one who confronts what she perceives to be her “destiny”, turns it down, and gives her heart to Kaisa- and that bit of agency makes all the difference for Ash. 

Other awesome things about this book include:

  • Storytelling/Science: “Perhaps because philosophers tended to be men and greenwitches tended to be women, the argument took an overly heated tone” (Chapter II)**. I do love this classic take on the gender dynamics of storytelling. It is interesting that while Ash may believe, as her mother did, in fairy tales, that in the end she rejects Sidhean and gives up her dream to be taken in by the fairy folk. It is not symbolic of her rejecting her beliefs, rather she is embracing the life that she already has. 
  • Maternal Figures: My favourite line in the book is from Ash’s mother: “Fear will teach you where to be careful” (Chapter II). It is just so … practical. I SO dislike it when parental figures are all about macho-bravery, “suck-it-up”, “don’t-cry-you-sissy”. It’s annoying. Ash cries. A lot. She also blunders into things. A lot. But only because her life is actually hard and she is slowly trying to figure out how she can fight back. In the end, she makes her own way. She goes from a girl who cried over her mother’s grave to a girl who realizes that “This life that she had once hated no longer seemed so bleak” (Chapter XIX). And that there is development. 
  • Sidhean/Fair Folk: I was looking through my annotations and found that one of my first ones for Sidhean read, “CREEP ALERT!” The passage I had highlighted was: “He reached out and stroked her hair” (Chapter VI). This was back when Ash and he had really just met. He was always so aloof and cold to her that this show of tenderness was odd and affronting to me. But then I realised that Ash was an unwanted girl. Unwanted by her step-mother. Unwanted by her step-sisters. It seems to me that were I in her position, I would have loved to be desired- even a little. And as someone who generally dislikes this kinds of trope-y YA moves of hair-touching, face-stroking when the characters have met, like, five seconds ago- *sigh* this realisation was a big (personal) development for me, okay? Just … go on to the next point.
  • Kaisa/Huntress: It does not seem odd at all that she is the head of her pack. Th
    e characters around her accept her without question. And I love it. Also, as someone whose job it is to kill animals, she is not without compassion. In fact, it is the main difference between her and Sidhean. Sidhean provides Ash with material objects in return for binding favours***, but Kaisa gives her gifts freely. She teaches Ash to ride and hunt. She tells her stories that are not just fairy stories but also hunting stories- thereby, encouraging new perspectives for Ash to consider. (Not everything is an either/or kind of situation, some things can be both/and.) At some point, Kaisa even gives Ash an apple and my annotation for that was “SYMBOLISM!!!” But really, what I loved- beyond the girl-bites-into-temptation image- is  the fact that Kaisa says “please” as she offers it. No kidding, but I melted. Kaisa just devastates people with her kindness and that is pretty awesome.
  • Queerness: In the article on avoiding stereotypes while writing LGBTQ characters, Malinda Lo talks about paying attention to certain words. And because Ash is set in a world where people accept a spectrum of sexuality, none of these words actually appear … except for queer. And yes, I do think it can simply be taken to mean “odd” or “strange”. But I also think Lo is having a bit of fun here- “Sidhean, for many years, you have been my only friend, though such a friendship is by definition a queer one …” (Chapter XX).

So, basically, I really (unexpectedly) enjoyed the first book I chose to review for romance month. Would I recommend Ash to you? Well, if you like fairy tales, if you like romance, if you like fantasy, and also, excellent prose … then yes, yes I would.

Cheers.

*Yes indeed, Past!Yash had many more prejudices than you know. Present!Yash who identifies a feminist is rather embarrassed. In fact, don’t get me wrong, I still don’t really read straight-up romance, but I’ve been getting better at reading fantasy and science-fiction novels that feature romance heavily. Perhaps I should, at some point, do a speculative post on gendering books for kids.

**Sorry, my copy is an eBook, so I can only provide chapter numbers and not page numbers.

*** He is the fairy godmother figure here. Except, creepier.