Ash by Malinda Lo is an nontraditional take on Cinderella that mixes fairy tales with tales of the fair folk.
When she is twelve, Ash’s mother passes away, and her father remarries; the step-mother brings with her her two children and a dismissal of the Old Ways. So when her father gets sick, nobody takes steps to ward off the fair folk, just bring in physicians who bleed him. He dies, and the step-mother takes Ash from her home and her mother’s grave to a house on the other side of the woods, where she is slowly forced to become a servant to pay her father’s debts. A familiar story?
Perhaps, but less familiar: she starts to see a strange man, with skin as white as snow and clothes and hair to match, who she recognizes as one of the fair folk. She longs to go with him and leave this wretched world behind, as the years pass, but he says she is not ready. He gives her a beautiful cloak, which she hides, and a medallion, and nothing more than hope that someday she might vanish entirely to go to their kingdom. Even though she knows in the stories of the fairy folk, humans who go lose time and humanity, become nothing more than servants—it is better than what she has here.
And that might stay that way until she meets the head of the royal hunt, a lovely huntress who helps teach her to ride whenever she can sneak away, who lures Ash in ways she’s unfamiliar with. As the Prince starts to hold events to choose a bride, Ash gets more chances to see the huntress—but has more to lose, as well, with her step-family right there as well, who could spot her and ruin her hopes. And the only way to really get what she wants is to take advantage of a fairy’s wishes, but those will come with a price…
I read a lot of fairy tales, and a lot of the ones about fairies kidnapping people, and this took one and melded it with the other quite seamlessly. The prose was beautiful and the way Ash was torn between her two interests was built up beautifully.
The only place that I didn’t quite feel was that we never got a good glimpse of what the huntress saw in Ash. We saw a lot of good traits in Ash ourselves, but the reason behind the huntress’s feelings were left somewhat mysterious. That’s not unusual in fairy tales, so it didn’t throw me, but I’d have liked to understand more about what was going on there. As well, the resolution of the central conflict worked for me, but I’d liked to have seen more of it; it felt, in some ways, like it worked up to the climax and then skipped to the denouement and I never quite got a glimpse of the peak.
But even so, I loved the book and how it came together, and I loved the composition of the narration. Really a beautiful read.