Oct 15, 2009

Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo

Not long after Aisling's mother dies, her father marries again. Aisling's - or Ash's - stepmother is called Lady Isobel, and she has two daughters of her own, Ana and Clara. None of them are particularly fond of Ash, and after some time her standing in the family becomes that of a servant. Sounds familiar? Yes, Ash is a loose retelling of "Cinderella". The most noteworthy difference is that instead of falling in love with a prince, Ash falls for Kaisa, the king's huntress.

I had been dying to read Ash ever since I first heard of it earlier this year. I wanted to read it so badly that I made it one of the three new releases I was allowed to get under my book buying ban - and this in a year with plenty of new releases that I'm coveting. Perhaps these high expectations were part of the problem. In any case, it really pains me to say that I didn't enjoy Ash nearly as much as I was expecting to.

I finished the book a week ago, and I've been trying to figure out what it was that made it not quite work for me ever since. The best thing I can come up with is that I failed to connect with the narrative voice. There was something about it that seemed a little off to me, a little strained; I kept being jolted out of the story when I wanted to lose myself in it. Nevertheless, there was a lot to like about Ash, so let me tell you about the good things:

I really liked the romance between Ash and Kaisa. It develops slowly, and the two have time to get to know each other, to develop a connection that feels real. The world of Ash is not a world where a same-sex romance is frowned upon, and Malinda Lo explains why she made that decision in her Big Idea post at Scalzi's blog. I completely agree with her reasons, and I love the fact that the romance in Ash is a romance, period. It's not overshadowed by the fear and shame that same-sex couples unfortunately still have to deal with in our world.

The romance, however, only takes place in the second half of the book. The first half is slower, more subtle and subdued. It spans several years, and it's mostly devoted to Ash coming to terms with the loss of her loved ones and with the subsequent changes in her life. We also watch her grow and change and realize who she is; who she does and does not want to be. The book isn't very long, so this first half only takes a little over a hundred pages, but it conveys the feeling that a long time has passed quite well.

I also loved the worldbuilding - the world of Ash is complex and fully realized. It's very much its own thing, but it reminded me of the worlds of The Goose Girl or Ella Enchanted, two of my favourite fairy tale retellings. If Malinda Lo were to set more novels in this world, I'd be sure to read them. But let me tell you a little about what makes the world so appealing: it has its own customs and traditions; it seems to exist beyond the story. Ash grows up in a remote part of the country, in a forested area where old traditions still live. We're told about the conflicts between older and modern ideas; about rites, festivals and celebrations; about the land's lore and about the truth behind that lore. And most interestingly of all, Ash's world is one where oral storytelling is of great importance. Ash's most treasured possession is a book of fairy tales that she inherits from her mother, and she and Kaisa connect by telling each other their favourite fairy tale.

Finally, I liked the fact that even though Ash's stepmother and stepsisters are far from being likeable characters, they are nor portrayed as black and white villains either. They're unpleasant and arrogant, especially Lady Isobel and Ana, the older sister. But Malinda Lo gives us a glimpse of the social system that forced these women to desperately seek a wealthy husband. There is some sympathy in the narration; some awareness of the demands that reduce these women to fairy tale stereotypes of callousness and greed.

I so wanted to love this book. It truly makes me sad that despite all the things I liked, in the end I just couldn't connect with Ash. The reasons probably have as much to do with myself as with the book. But plenty of other readers loved it, and perhaps you will too.

Other opinions: Melody's Reading Corner, Presenting Lenore, Pop Culture Junkie, The Story Siren, Steph Su Reads, Zoe's Book Reviews, The Dreamer Reader, Becky's Book Reviews, The Book Smugglers, A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy, GalleySmith

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. It's hard to not love a book that everyone else does, isn't it?? In the back of my head, I hear myself saying "What is wrong with me?" I know I did this the whole time I was reading Tender Morsels. Not that eveyone liked it. But most of the bloggers I seem to have lots in common with did. And the reviews are just so hard to write! I find I can gush about a book for hours. And if it's horrible, I can go on and on. But anything in the middle is just tough!

    I haven't read this one, but I've heard tons of good stuff about it.

  2. I know I've read other mixed reviews of this one on blogs, so you're not alone. :) I had already decided on someone else's review that it probably wouldn't appeal to me, and yours just confirmed that.

  3. It's a shame that you didn't connect with it. It does happen to me sometimes though, when I just can't figure out why I didn't love something the way I should have. I still have this book to be read, so I hope I will like it more.

  4. Oh dear, I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it as much as you thought you would. Ash is still waiting in my TBR pile, and I hope I'll enjoy it.

  5. Well, I can't say more than we've already talked about on twitter and such, but I'm still sad. I'm still going to try it, even though I don't normally like retellings. If it doesn't work out, ah well.

  6. Two particular bummers...one is that you used your precious ration of books on one that didn't blow you away. And second, Cinderella re-tellings have so much potential, which wasn't realized here. You know what I say? If you don't love one of the few books you allow yourself during a book ban, you get to pick another...

  7. I actually quite liked this one. I didn't notice a lack of a connection between the reader and Ash, but it's possible. I read it really quickly, in one setting, so sometimes I wonder if I am more forgiving of things that would normally bother me because I didn't even give them enough thought. I'm glad there were things you liked though! :)

  8. I enjoyed reading this story, but I thought it'd have been better. The worldbuilding is terrific, isn't it? That's one of the things I enjoyed about this story. I hope the next book (by Malinda) will be better! :)

  9. I am sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy this one, but there are plenty of books out there to read and I am sure your next pick will be great:)

  10. Interesting that you don't know why you didn't connect with it. I think I'm the opposite: I usually know why I don't like a book, but am more at a loss to explain why I really love a book!

  11. I haven't read this but I know how disappointing it is when you just don't connect with the characters.

  12. It appears from this cover that she is lying in grass...I never noticed that before. I thought it was just her in a black background. Now I don't like the cover so much.

    Do you feel like you wasted one of your exceptions to your ban on this?

  13. I've seen reviews that love this one, and reviews like yours where while they didn't dislike it they didn't quite love it either. Perhaps it's just that sort of book.

    I'd love to be a bit more coherent in this comment, but I'm about 3/4 of the way though TAATA, so I'm sure you understand!

  14. I had a serious obsession with Cinderella when I was in high school, but I never wanted to read any retellings. I am not sure I want to read this one, either, as I have such strong feelings connecting me to the book. But it sounds really great, as a fantasy novel. I love when worlds are created so fully in those books. Hmmm... decisions, decisions!

  15. I just haven't gotten into the whole retelling of fairy tale things, so I don't think this is for me.

  16. Very insightful review. I am torn about this book because while on the one hand I hate to feel disconnected from the protagonist's voice, I also think that some of the other components of the book sound wonderful. Especially the world building. I really love books that have strong and complex world building, so this seems like a huge plus for me. I think I am going to take a chance on this book, but keep in mind that you had some reservations with it. I will let you know how it goes when I finally get to it. Thanks!

  17. I haven't really read many books that get into retelling of fairy tales. I don't think I'm that attracted to them on the whole but I have read a few reviews of this book and I'm intrigued. I want to check it out but it just may not be any time soon.

  18. Ohh I've heard about this one-- what an interesting retelling! It's definitely interesting with all the attention homosexuality is getting, in the US at least... I'm not too sure of how it is elsewhere.

    I'm sorry you weren't all that fond of it. Sometimes it's so hard to write a review about a book that everyone else loves and you don't so much. :/ Thanks for being honest! :D

  19. Just because this story was done differently I'm going to read it! Too bad it didn't stick with you. I hate it when a book has most of the characteristics we want in a great book but falls short.

  20. I haven't picked up Ash and I'm sorry to hear that the narration didn't work out too well for you.

  21. The more reviews of this book I read, the more I think I will probably just see if the library will buy it...

  22. Stephanie: What made it so hard was how much I wanted to love it :(

    Eva: I somehow thought I'd be alone in feeling so meh about it. It's good to have company :P

    Meghan: I hope you do too!

    Marisa, hopefully you will!

    Amanda: As you know I'm a big fan of retellings, and I can say that this is actually quite different from most. So not normally liking them won't necessarily mean you won't like this one!

    Sandy: lol! That's some very tempting reasoning you've got there :P

    Lu: Did you review it? I couldn't find your link! Anyway, I'm glad to hear you did like it - I wish I had too :(

    Melody: I do want to read whatever she writes next - I'm sure she'll continue to grow as a writer!

    Andreea: Exactly! :) Can't love them all.

    Jill: Normally I'm better than this at pinpointing specific problems, but in this case it was just a vague feeling of wrongness, you know? Something about the narration was a little off.

    Dar: In this case, it was really more with the story as a whole than with the characters. But both things are sad :(

    J.T. Oldfield: I'm afraid I do, yes :/ And yeah, the cover is not completely black...I thought it was too!

    Bart: lol! I completely understand, yes.

    Aarti: You should read at least Ella Enchanted, though! Ella would make an excellent riveter, now that I think of it.

    Kathy: I normally love them, but not in this case :/

    Zibilee: Lots of people really loved it, so I'd definitely recommend giving it a try!

    Iliana: I'm a big fan of retellings, and maybe part of the problem is that I expect a certain voice from them - and that wasn't what I found here.

    She: I LOVE that we're seeing more and more books with glbtq characters. It always makes me sad not to love a book I expect to love, but oh well!

    Vasilly: Do read it anyway, yes! Hopefully you'll like it more than I did.

    Alice: It was a shame :( But oh well, on to my next book!

    Kelly, that might be a good idea, yes.

  23. It's so frustrating when you want to love a book but don't! I was the same with the English Patient, especially as I love the film so much.

    You convinced me to read it as soon as you compared it to the Goose Girl though!

  24. I so struggled with this book as well. I never could wrap my head around quite why though. I think in the end I didn't connect with the potential romance on either side. It didn't seem as passion-filled as I would expect it to be. This could have been an obvious choice on the part of the author -- to make it a slow subtle awakening -- which I respect and I certainly wasn't looking for a bodice ripper by any stretch but I honestly didn't feel like there was more than BFF'ery between Ash and Kaisa. The spark wasn't there.

    It was a beautifully written story and I enjoyed the fairy aspect and imagery of that element quite a bit. But in the end it wasn't enough to carry the whole story for me.

  25. This sounds interesting, I have heard of it before.
    Sorry to hear you didnt enjoy it as much as you'd hoped.
    It can throw a reader off when they don't connect with the central character.

  26. I really appreciate your balanced review of this book! I have heard a lot of praise for it, and I really want to give it a try, but I had such high expectations for it that I was almost scared to read it.

    I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it as much as you wanted to, though. It's hard when you can't connect with the characters. For me they are the most important point of fiction : even when the writing is excellent and the plot original, if I can't connect with the character, I will often struggle through the book.


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