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.
The Second Mango (Mangoverse #1) by Shira Glassman is a delightful lesbian young adult fantasy with a charming sense of adventure.
Shulamit is the young queen of Perach, and is not exactly happy with her situation. She likes ladies and can’t digest wheat or fowl, both things the servants around her can’t or won’t accept as something normal to work around (taking them instead as signs that she’s desperate for attention). After her lover runs away with no explanation and her loving father has tragically died, she’s left frustrated—in multiple senses of the word. Which results in her sneaking out to a bawdy house, which results in her getting kidnapped, which results in her getting rescued by the travelling mercenary Riv—secretly Rivka, a woman hiding her identity to avoid prejudices against women as warriors. Impulsively, Shulamit hires Rivka to be her bodyguard on a quest to go find another woman-loving-woman in return for being offered position as guard captain, so they’re off on an adventure that will bring them face-to-face with thieves, evil wizards, and surprises from both their pasts.
Shulamit is one of my favorite types of characters—High Int, Low Wis, which is to say, perfectly smart but with the common sense of a spoon. She attaches to people quickly, and when she opens her mouth, words fall out. I find her a very charming example of this type, quirky and energetic but not stupid in the slightest. Her companion, Rivka, is slightly older and calmer by nature. She talks less, acts more, though we get to see she was quite a bit reckless when she was younger as well. They balance each other well, and I was willing to buy that the opportunity to settle down in a job that’d still let her see lots of action while guarding someone important would be a compelling argument to go along with Shulamit’s poorly-thought-through plans.
I agree with some of the other reviewers that this reads toward the younger end of the YA scale. I think probably I’d recommend this most for the 12-16 age range, young teen girls looking for heroes like themselves in fiction and wanting to read a cute fluffy adventure at the same time. That was definitely the age that I started reading adult novels to try to find queer characters, while also juggling fluffier younger reads! This would be a perfect antidote to those things I didn’t have when I was young, and I’m excited to think that it exists now.
And there’s a lot to like in this book for adults too, and a lot to recommend. Not only is it a Jewish fantasy world (as opposed to the copious number of Christian-centric fantasy worlds), and has a main character who’s a queen rather than a princess, it also introduces a hero with food sensitivities which, as someone with them myself, I realize I have literally never read. Maybe I’d have a lot less trouble in restaurants if people grew up reading it as a standard! And then on top of that, the adventure is fun and the het pairing is also cute and something I could root for. And there are dragons!
The only thing I looked for and didn’t find in it was a sense of tension; problems were usually solved with the first solution the characters came up with, and there was never any guilt or resentment (justified or not) to deal with when people made mistakes. There are scenes we see the characters’ insecurities, but they aren’t really talked out with the others involved. That said, as much as I would have liked more of a sense of risk, it didn’t bother me; I was in it for a fun read and that’s what I got.
I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of the Mangoverse. More to the point, I’m glad this book exists and I hope teens out there, particularly, snatch it up. Read it like I couldn’t, back then!