A fresh, imaginative retelling of a classic fairy tale, this is how most reviews lead off, but this lead falls short of what a fantastic, modern tale of resilience, growth, loss and love this is. In the classic tale, Cinderella is forced into servitude. She grieves. Blah, blah, blah. She meets a handsome prince and lives happily ever after. Snooze. Yes, I was not enthralled with the fairy tale as a child and as an adult I am not impressed with women being swept off their feet by perfect men who are the key to our ultimate happiness. Blame it on my politics.
So why did I give Ash a chance? Because despite my prejudice, I knew a little about the writer and I felt reasonably sure that if I were going to appreciate fairy tales, Lo was my evangelist. She doesn’t disappoint. Ash is provocative. It is empowering. It provides intriguing twists to a classic. It’s a love story but this one is tender, intimate and the lover doesn’t swoop in and save the poor girl. Poor girl saves herself and the girl chooses who she loves.
This retelling of Cinderella is far better than what I remember of the original fairy tale. In Lo's version, Ash falls in love with the King's Huntress. The main character is fond of fairy tales and she recounts many for Kaisa, leader of the King’s hunters. What I know is a staple in the fairy tales and fantasy is that imaginary worlds are described in detail and these descriptions significantly lengthen the story; the details help the reader fully immerse herself in the world. Well, I’m not a big fairy tale fan and this element doesn’t appeal to me. If Lo had written long passages describing the history, landscape and inhabitants, I would have likely been bored. I’m glad that writer opted instead to use Ash’s interweaving story telling as a way to inform the reader.
Ash’s story telling allows us to gradually learn about the mores and history of the two different societies. I am far more interested in the development of relationships and deliberate though subtle revelations of character. Through Ash’s interactions with her stepfamily, Kaisa, and Sidhean, Lo examines gender roles, power hierarchies and autonomy.
Lo makes decisive breaks from the traditional story: There aren’t drawn out descriptions of history and clans, Ash falls in love with a woman and there is no matronly fairy godmother. The latter is the most intriguing element for me. Sidhean, a fairy, is dark but not campy b-movie creepy. He is closer to the archetype. He isn’t cute or sparkly. And while his skin is pale almost translucent, he is not beautiful; beauty isn’t his allure. He is an enigma, dark and menacing, a sensual being whose charms could easily seduce all others, except Ash the daughter of the human he loved. This departure from the original yields the greatest effect for me. There is palpable tension between Ash and Sidhean and despite the clear power and influence he has over her, he cannot conquer his desire for her.
Sidhean is more than someone who could help Ash; he is her companion. Their relationship is unconventional, far more complicated than the budding relationship between Ash and Kaisa. Because of their relationship, Ash learns about boundaries and acceptance, and her ability to embrace or reject her circumstances. Over time she stops trying to figure out what’s between them and accepts it for what it is. Ultimately, she learns the power of choice and rejects what Sidhean wants.
I am not sure if Lo anticipated a reader like me who would see a love triangle, one that is complex and unsatisfying. Despite Sidhean’s feelings (won’t debate the magic) for her, there is the inequality of power; the inequality in part speaks to what love is not while the slow, mutual desire building between Ash and Kaisa represents what love can be. I am glad that Ash unlike another character in a hugely popular work, moves beyond infatuation and makes an informed decision to pursue a relationship where she is an equal partner. Cinderella falls in love with a handsome man she knows nothing about. Ash spends a fair amount of time getting to a know a woman who she is not only attracted to, but a woman who accepts her and cares about what matters to her. That’s the kind of love that leads to happily ever after.
Regardless if you see what I see in the book, Ash is a good story. Good story telling has layers. I hope you take the time to discover what Ash has to offer you.
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