Today, to kick off Fairy Tale Week, I present you with a two-for: a review of Ash by Malinda Lo, and an interview with the author!
That being said, this is a looooooooong one...
Ash is one of those books that seemed to catch like wildfire in the blogosphere. One day, you've never heard of it, and the next, it's everywhere, and you have to read it. And like most suddenly ubiquitous books, I have mixed feelings...
Ash is a non-traditional retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. Ash is a young girl who loses her parents and finds herself thrust into the care of her newly made family: a callous step-mother and distant, spoiled step-sisters. She is removed from her distant home village and all it's country traditions and beliefs to a city near the capitol, where fairy tales really are just tales, and everything Ash has always believed and pursued is laughed at or looked down on.
But Ash finds herself the object of attention of a very unusual being named Sidhean, and though she likes this attention, she finds herself torn between Sidhean and the King's huntress, Kaisa. Both have the ability to drastically change her life...
Sounds good, right? I was super excited for a number of reasons. 1) I love fairy tale retellings. 2) I was intrigued by a Cinderella with a LGBT slant. 3) EVERYONE seemed to be raving about this. 4) The cover close up is gorgeous, and I am a sucker for a good cover, we all know that.
And though I did like this, I like it with reservations, so I'm going to break this into two parts of each aspect: the good (fairy) and the bad (fairy).
Aspect One: Ash
The Good (fairy): I loved watching Ash develop. It's the Cinderella story at it's core: you watch a charming/pretty/intelligent girl who doesn't realize what she's capable of, or what the world holds for her blossom into the woman she is meant to be. When Sidhean enters the story, Ash perks up a bit, but when Kaisa comes in, she blooms, and the story is truly enjoyable from then on.
The Bad (fairy): Kaisa doesn't enter the story until quite a ways in, and until then, it's not nearly as enjoyable. It's not that it's ever really bad, but I didn't find myself drawn in, nothing really came alive until Kaisa, except for the brief moments with Sidhean.
Aspect Two: Love
The Good (fairy): One of my absolute favorite things about this, and one of the best decisions I think Lo made while crafting this story, is how she dealt with the idea of love. I know there are people who will worry when they hear it is a gay retelling of Cinderella, and they will think that it's going to hit you over the head with it, or be anti-straight, or try to "convert" you, or some other equally ridiculous thing. Of course, it did not do that. What Lo created was a world where love is love. When Kaisa and Ash begin to find themselves drawn to each other, they are not looked down upon. Attraction is attraction, people are people, love is love. There is also some nice pull and ambiguity between the three: Ash is drawn to Sidhean, who is a man, as well as Kaisa, who is a woman, and no issue is ever made of that. I liked that aspect a lot, and it was handled nicely.
The Bad (fairy): is a spoiler*, so if you want to know, it's at the bottom.
Aspect Three: Language and Writing
The Good (fairy): There are times when this flows beautifully, and when Ash's world is completely engaging and light. As I said before, this is mostly when Kaisa comes into the story.
Through much of the story, I think the writing is writing. I wouldn't put it heavily on one side (good) or the other (bad).
The Bad (fairy): Mostly, though, I wanted more from the writing. I kept waiting for something to really stop me in my tracks or take my breath away. I am a quote person, and I tab things that catch my fancy. I didn't feel a need to tab. Ash's narration felt disengaged and overly formal, especially for a sort of backwoods girl. There was a stilted feel, and I had a hard time at first getting into the story because I just didn't find the narration engaging. Also, I felt like Lo didn't take full advantage of everything. Things could have been more: taut/exciting/powerful, but they were sometimes glossed over or let slide. Now, I know some of this is pickiness on my part, and some people may not notice it at all, but it irritated me, especially as I saw potential for gems, potential for great writing, but I didn't get to see that potential fulfilled often enough. I think Lo will get there, I just don't think she's quite there yet.
Aspect Four: World and story overall.
The Good (fairy): There were some things (the occasional gems I mentioned) that I just loved. I already talked about Lo's treatment of love and relationships, which I enjoyed. I also really liked how "Prince Charming" was basically ignored. He never did a damn thing, so why give him more page space. In this, he was basically what I have always suspected, but I'll leave that to you to see... Also, I really enjoyed the irony** involved in the situation between Ash and Sidhean and her mother, but that's another spoiler, so it is way down there.... (where's a down arrow when you need one?)
The Bad (fairy): Some elements of the story and the world felt heavily influenced by other stories/movies, etc (Ever After, Wicked Lovely, Daughter of the Forest, etc.). Again, not something everyone will notice, and not necessarily intentional, but it still ate at me.
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Alright, so now you've heard my thoughts on the book, why not see what Malinda had to say for herself in my first author interview, ever!
Thanks for doing this interview, Malinda!
First off, I found Ash to be really interesting, and I had a lot of questions as I was reading, about choices you'd made. The first and biggest, perhaps, is why Cinderella? What made it ripe for retelling, especially LGBT retelling? Is there a personal connection to that particular fairytale?
I answered this on my FAQ here (specifically questions 6 and 7)Duly noted. (She's talking about this:
Why a lesbian Cinderella? Was that your intention from the beginning?
Actually, no. The first draft of Ash was a straight, as in heterosexual, retelling of the fairy tale. Then I sent that draft to a friend of mine for some feedback, and she told me she thought the Prince Charming character was kind of dull, but this other woman in the book was quite intriguing. I reread the draft and realized that Ash was falling in love with this other woman. I had written that in entirely subconsciously.
I figured I could either attempt to make Prince Charming more charming, or I could rewrite the whole thing and have Ash fall in love with this female character. It would become a lesbian Cinderella. The idea of doing this totally freaked me out at first, because I thought it would make the book unsellable.
But it was so clear, after further consideration, that this was the story that was actually coming out (in all senses of the phrase), that I decided to go for itSo there you have it.)
What other fairytales are also ready for a GLBT twist, in your opinion? Are there any where that just wouldn't work?
I know the reader reaction has been good (everything I've seen raves), but what has parental reaction been like? Fairytale purist reaction?
I'm sure that pretty much all fairy tales would be interesting if retold with a queer angle. There are already several anthologies out there in which fairy tales are given an LGBT spin.
My parents have told me that they really like Ash. I haven't heard from any fairy tale purists!Quick clarification: I didn't mean just your parents, but parents in general. I run a Banned Books Week Readathon, so I know that many if not most of books that get banned or challenged touch on or deal with homosexuality. Nothing seems to piss parents off more. Have you heard from parents of readers? Has any of that been negative?
A-ha, I see. I haven't heard anything from other people's parents, either. So, not a very interesting answer. :)Well, that's a good sign, I guess. I'm frankly sick of seeing And Tango Makes Three and The Perks of Being a Wallflower topping/making the 10 most banned books of the year list.
Moving on, one of my favorite aspects of the story was the way romance itself was dealt with. There was some ambiguity in it. When people see the budding romance between Ash and Kaisa, it's not attacked or called taboo. Ash does fall for and end up with Kaisa, but she is also drawn to Sidhean, whom she also, in a way, ends up with. It's not a straight GLBT twist. The message, for me, seemed to just be that love is right, no need to draw lines. Was the ambiguity and the lack of "line-drawing" intentional? If so, why was that the way to go, in your opinion.
The lack of "line-drawing" was intentional, yes. That's because there is no "gay" or "straight" in Ash's world — at least not in the way that we as people living in North America in 2009 understand those concepts. In Ash's world, people just love whomever they love. I wanted it to be that way so that Ash could truly be a fairy tale, rather than a coming-out story.Now for the more frivolous and silly:
If you could be any fairytale heroine, who would you be and why? Any villain?
Would you rather eat an entire gingerbread house or four-and-twenty blackbirds baked into a pie?I think I'd be Beauty in Robin McKinley's novel BEAUTY. I really love that retelling of "Beauty and the Beast." If I could be a villain ... you know, I do kind of like Maleficent in the Disney movie version of Sleeping Beauty. She's very powerful!
The pie. I always go for the pie. And I'm sure the blackbirds just taste like chicken.What's the worst way to go: fattened up and eaten in said gingerbread house, or crushed by a giant for breaking and entering?
I think that being fattened up and then eaten would be much worse, because it would be long and drawn out. Hopefully the giant would crush you instantly and you would feel no pain!Lastly, readers want to know what's next. Do you have anything in the works? Any fever dreams of crazy stories you want to write?
My next novel is a companion novel to ASH. It's set in the same world, but several hundred years earlier, so there are no crossover characters. It's a fantasy and an adventure about the first huntress in the Kingdom, and it should come out in fall 2010.I so badly wanted to know what it was like for Ash when she went with Sidhean -- so badly! Is there any chance of a short story...? (please say yes!)
Damn. Well, thanks so much!I'm not really a short story writer, unfortunately. Maybe that will change sometime! But whatever happened when Ash went off with Sidhean shall forever remain between them. :)
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I also asked: There is a big focus on people telling tales, especially their favorite tales, throughout the story. If you had to pick one tale to tell, which would you choose and why does it speak to you?, but Malinda chose to skip that one. Not sure if that's because Cinderella is her favorite...
So that's that, folks. My first author interview. :)
*The Bad (fairy) about love: SPOILER ALERT! Ash makes an agreement with Sidhean, and must go with him before she can be with Kaisa. This happens, but we don't get to know a word of it. They disappear, and then it's over, she's back and on to find Kaisa. It felt really hollow to me, and I like, just because Sidhean wasn't the main love interest, he got short-changed. This was true all around. I found him fascinating, but the reader is never really given enough to understand him. I think this was intentional, as he is the non-human in the story. It was meant to make him mysterious, but it left me feeling like things were unanswered.
**SPOILER about irony: I loved that the curse Ash's mother had put on Sidhean to make him feel love for a human and understand the torment he's caused sort of backfired (or at least wasn't quite what she'd intended) in that he fell in love with and pursued Ash, her daughter, and not some random human. It seemed a very appropriate and fitting fairy tale-like twist, which was a brilliant move on Lo's part, to add that layer.