KNOWN AS A LESBIAN retelling of "Cinderella," Ash by Malinda Lo is a beautifully subversive fairy tale, but the main character's attraction to another woman is not what makes the story so astonishing. Rather, Lo's book sets itself apart from recent young-adult novels through its contemplative pace, subversion of gender roles, and sad, lovely, dreamlike descriptions. The experience of reading the story is not unlike sinking into a soft blanket of moss in the Wood, as afternoon sunlight filters through the trees above you.
At its heart, Ash is a book about what it means to read and love fairy tales, and what it might mean to have the opportunity to live in one. (For what is the point of fairy tales if not to tempt the reader into making a wish to exchange his or her world for a different one?)
Ash's "Cinderella" roots are clear: Evil stepmother Isobel and slightly-less-evil stepsisters Clara and Ana make life miserable for 11-year-old Aisling (nicknamed Ash), claiming that Ash's late father has left them in debt. They force Ash to repay her "family" by working as their maid (read: slave). Her only solace comes from the book of fairy tales left behind by her mother. Ash cherishes the stories and relies on them for comfort.
Unlike the women in the traditional version of "Cinderella," the women of Ash hold special positions of power in society. Huntresses lead the King's hunting parties. Greenwitches perform ceremonial rites and mix the occasional love potion and medicinal herb. It's refreshing to spend time in a fantasy world where young girls aspire to become something other than a princess — a role predicated on whom you're born to or marry. Rather, huntresses must prove themselves, go through rigorous training, and be selected for the honor of leading the hunt.
Another delightful aspect of Ash is the fact that readers are treated to the same inventive stories and legends that enthrall Ash: "Bonus" fairy tales within the fairy tale. As a girl in the midst of desperate grief, Ash decides to find out for herself whether fairies are real. She enters the Wood outside her home during a full moon and meets Sidhean, an extraordinarily handsome, mesmerizing, and ethereal fairy whose fate is intertwined with hers.
By the time Ash turns 16, however, someone else competes for her affections: strong, kind Kaisa, the King's Huntress.
Ash's relationship with Kaisa completes the process of turning “Cinderella” on its head by subverting the reader's gender expectations. Not only does Ash fall in love with a woman, but, instead of wishing to attend a ball, Ash initially wishes for the chance to participate in a hunt, so that she may spend more time with Kaisa. Later, instead of hoping to win a proposal from the prince, as her stepsisters do, Ash wishes to catch a glimpse of Kaisa at the King's ball.
Although same-sex relationships don't seem to raise eyebrows in the King's court, and huntresses have been known to take female lovers, it's difficult for Ash to admit to herself that she loves Kaisa. To attend the ball in question, Ash conforms to heteronormative expectations.
"It was as if she had slipped into someone else's skin, and it did not quite fit."
Because the ball is a masquerade, Ash literally wears a mask, too. The guise works – she attracts the attention of the prince, but he is not the person she yearns for. "You look beautiful," Kaisa remarks, "But the dress does not suit you." Modern teens struggling with their sexual identity may relate to the feeling of wearing a mask, or of hiding in plain sight.
Sidhean grants both of Ash's wishes in exchange for becoming his bride, in the time-honored tradition of fairy-human relations. Thus Ash's romantic choice is not between male and female, or even between fairy and huntress — it's between life and virtual death. Will she cede control of her fate to Sidhean by joining him in the fairy realm (a realm she's always fantasized about), or will she find the strength to forge her own path with Kaisa?
In sharp contrast to the young-adult heroines of vampire books, where the goal seems to be to divest oneself of life as quickly as possible, Ash comes to see the real world, despite its hardships and disappointments, as far more precious and magical than any fairy tale. In the real world, love is freely given and received, but the fairy kingdom is nothing more than a beautiful mask; an illusion. Dresses are made of cobwebs, and after midnight, crystal beads turn into paste.
Letting go of her childhood fantasies allows Ash to realize she is responsible for her own happiness, and that true joy is only possible in a world where sadness also occurs. Even the fairies seem to agree in the value of Ash's reality: "All they could do was create a pale, crystalline imitation, perfect and cold. How it must disappoint them: that they would never be human."