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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review: Ash by Malinda Lo


Title: Ash
Author(s): Malinda Lo
Genre: YA Fairy Tale Retelling
Page Count: 264
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

The Summary:Cinderella retold

In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash's capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.

The Review: Hmm, after having finished reading the novel, my feelings were mixed and I mostly felt torn. One side of me was all super gushy and melting over the Kaisa/Ash pairing, and my other half was left ambivalent about the rest. Thinking back, I think it’s due to my lack of love for the Cinderella tale in general, and the whole pseudo-white medieval setting Lo had going on. I’m not sure how much I was affected by the fact that I read this post by Malinda Lo wherein she said that she imagined her cast as Asian before having read the novel. I tried, and I tried to buy it, that the cast were Asian but I just couldn’t. I wrestled with this in myself and wondered why can’t I imagine this fairy tale world with people who look like me. It’s most definitely not because one of the girl has green eyes and the other girl is a brunette because I know Asians who have such features and they are most certainly not mixed. And I think, after reading Zetta Elliott’s review of Ash, a large part of it had to do with the way beauty is described in this novel. It felt to me like a very white standard of who is considered beautiful, from the “jeweled” glittering, awesomely coloured eyes to the “golden” silken hair to the “ethereal” paleness of the skin, all used as examples of beauty. This, plus the European-inspired pseudo-medieval setting made me equate the general populous of this novel as white. I’m so resigned and used to medieval fantasy excluding all non-white persons from their stories, and this novel failed to show a “medieval” fantasy that can include non-white characters.

[...Though, as an aside, if I streeeeeeeeeetch my imagination, I can kind of picture Kaisa as Asian, due to her name and the bit about her being from the “South” which I may be reading too much into it. (Even I feel like I’m grasping at straws over this.) Though, any of these tiny little hopes were largely crushed by the eyes thing; her Very Awesome Green Eyes of Awesome is off-putting. (Not that I don’t think green eyes are nice, but it’s such a white beauty standard thing, to emphasize Awesomely Coloured Eyes.) I could picture a short haired!Kuroki Meisa as an Asian Badass Huntress Kaisa. (Kuroki Meisa is SO BUTCH. *bricked*)]

Apart from all that, another thing I felt torn about is the writing. This shocked me, because I’ve seen rave reviews on the writing in Ash so I didn’t think it’d be a problem for me… But it was! Yes, I see that she has a lovely way of describing nature and the world around her, and her phrases would on occasion take me by surprise by the sheer beauty of her words, but it bogs down a little for me because she keeps dragging out her sentences with ‘and’s. (I’m almost positive I’ve seen her use the word “and” over six times in a sentence and that should just not be allowed.) Seriously, I bet I could find a sentence that lasts like, five lines long. It’s nowhere near as awful as Hemingway gets with his carry-on sentences, but it does put me off a little. I’m a fan of the short, concise sentences in the fictional writing school and Lo is anything but. So the whole time I was reading, I would spend half the time wrestling with her neverending sentences and the other have gasping at her beautiful descriptions (the ones of the Wood are my favourite.) This was especially so with the first half of the novel (by the second half I was invested in the story to the point where I just stopped caring as much and stopped letting it interfere with my reading enjoyment time). So I guess it’s a love-hate relationship? Lol. Strangest feeling, to love and hate a writing style at the same time…

Going back to my reservations on the Cinderella story itself: When I read retellings of stories that I’m not particularly fond of, the more they turn away and/or subvert the original source, the more I like it. Unfortunately for me, the first half of the novel was pretty much sticking to the original source like glue, with slight deviances over the Sidhaen thing. I must have started Ash like, 5 times over before I finally got past the first part of the novel and barreled through to the end. (I think the only way I got through the first half was my weaknesses for the insert fairy tales sprinkled in. I suspect I may have liked some of the fairy tales told more than the storyline of the novel itself, but that’s another thing altogether.) I wish I liked the first half more, because I like the conception of Sidhaen as a character, but he was a bit too distant for me to get a good feel of him and I stopped liking Sidhaen as a character by his own right the second they mentioned the whole Sidhaen knowing her mother and waiting for the right time to “claim” Ash thing. At that point I was like, way too sketch and pedo for me there, have to run away from that ship while the good gets going.

But once I hit the second half, I finally started enjoying this novel. (YAY the positives in this review are finally here, lol.) Because, Kaisa and Ash? Too dork-ily adorable. (They bond over telling each other fairy tales and go horseback riding! *gushes*) In fact, by the end of the novel I was like, “come on, that was it?! I need more Kaisa and Ash date scenes!” I liked them not so much because there was a lot of passion behind their budding romance (in fact, it’s the exact opposite), but because of the interesting juxtaposition with the relationship between Ash and Sidhaen, and just, the sweet fairy tale romance of a woman falling in love with a woman and it didn’t matter one whit to anyone. (Huh, so I guess that kind of means I like the idea of Kaisa/Ash more than I like the couple themselves? *sadface* I would totally have liked this couple by their own right if they had more SCENES THOUGH, I’m sure.)
Another thing I loved about the second half was that the subversions in Cinderella finally shone through! I loved the role of Sidhaen as the revamped fairy godmother. So many interesting things about that aspect that I really, really don’t want to spoil, so I’ll just say that fairy godmother as now the dark, sexy and very creepy fairy prince letting Cinderella go to the ball in exchange for having her as a “bride”? Is awesome. Also, the way Ash just did not care about the Prince at the ball and spent all that time looking for Kaisa instead made me grin. (This is starting to feel spoilery… I can’t help it! All the things I like that I want to talk about are in the second half!)

Okay, so since I can’t talk about the ending without spoiling, I will have spoiler here MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ENDING DON'T READ IF YOU HAVEN'T READ BOOK YET: [I liked the concept of Ash saving herself when she confronts Sidhaen, but it was a bit of a letdown because we didn’t actually see it happen. In fact, there was just not enough of the fairy world in general. But then, you know, we got hot huntress makeout scene at the end so I was alleviated from this minor disappointment.]

Some other tiny quibbles: How women of high born status who weren’t Ash were EVIL EVIL EVIL (unless they’re motherly and dead) and only those who like Ash are Good. I was really frustrated with Lady Isobel because she was just this awful 2D villain. Honestly, by the end of it, Isobel’s villany was pushing on comical. Also, you’d think that with the Cinderella premise you could push at the whole class thing a little more but that was mostly unexplored here.

By the end of the novel, I was left feeling gushy Kaisa/Ash shippy but also wanting more out of the story as well. It’s like, I felt that the novel had a lot of potential to go further than it did, but it didn’t take that extra step. And I wanted more on the Huntresses! Not just tidbits here and there from fairy tales! Oh well, I guess this means I’ll be scavenging for a copy of Huntress. Malinda Lo said something in her blog (if I'm remembering this correctly) about making the characters in her next novel more distinctly Asian, and I’m being cautiously optimistic about this. Very, very cautious. With sprinkled bouts of pessimism here and there.

The Verdict: Mixed feelings, and I'm still not a fan of the first half. But things got going during the second half and to be honest, when I got to the last page and watched Kaisa and Ash end up together, I was grinning like a fool. Good endings that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside can get me to forgive almost everything about the novel. Also! The random fairy tales told! I liked that a lot~

Rating: 2.5/5
Enjoyment: 70%

Title and Cover Discussion: Ash is one of those covers and titles wherein I look at it and actually have nothing to critique because it fits the novel beautifully AND it's incredibly gorgeous. ♥ Seriously beautiful, the kind of cover that just draws you in. Also, not entirely related, but I loved the decorated first letters of every chapter. The whole look of this book added to the fairy tale feel. *grins*

Title: A
Cover: A+

[WILL INSERT MR. LINKY LATER]

Discussion Question For Readers: lol because I'm curious, for those who've read the novel, which was your favourite fairy tale insert? There's a lot that I liked, but I have a special fondness for that Niamh one, the huntress fairy tale Kaisa told Ash.

9 comments:

MissAttitude said...

Aw, I'm sad you didn't love it :( Reading your review and Zetta's made me go back and skim the book a little bit. I've come to agree that the ideal beauty is very white as described in Ash and it is hard to tell that Ash is Asian. I would have enjoyed more scenes with Kaisa and Ash too and I definitely wanted to know what Ash had to do to free herself from Sidhean! This is what I love about book blogging, you get to read so many different opinions on books :) Thanks for such a honest review.

Most of the fairy tales were hauntingly beautiful. I especially liked both that Ash and Kaisa told each other and the story
Sidhean told her about her mother. Not really a fairy tale and I didn't see it as all that creepy either. Realistically it is, but it's a fairy tale so it works :D

Zetta said...

I agree with Miss A--finding other perspectives on the same book is great! I liked the Niamh story, and wondered why the author would set us up like that then leave Kaisa without a mission (but total willingness to do ANYthing for Ash)...I didn't expect any dragon-slaying, but there should have been SOME kind of test to either prove Kaisa's love for Ash, Ash's love for Kaisa, or Sidhean's love for Ash...there were too many scenes of Ash running through the woods to her mother's grave; if her mother was a greenwitch in training, and Ash had some hints of that ability herself, then why wasn't that elaborated? I felt like we needed an elder witch/woman on the scene to advise Ash. There was ONE moment of class analysis that I found--when Ash finds Kaisa in her tent and the servant is dimissed, Ash thinks to herself, "I am a servant." So there's a sequel, huh? Interesting...

Emma said...

Great review. Still haven't read this one, but I will!

ninefly said...

I felt really cheated too cuz I was like OMG Asian!Cinderella! when I read the author label and "Aislinn" <-- looked kinda asian to me =T and then it all fell down...I didn't even see the author's note that they were supposed to be "asian-like" either
I need Asian-character therapy DDDD8 *snuggles Warchild* (though I haven't started yet...gotta finish the 14234234 ones I'm currently reading first)
still, it's kind of like what I'm going through with Hero right now, I don't really care all that much about the story, I just want the ROMANCE OF CUTE to kick in right about now XD;
and OMG now I can't UNthink Kuroki Meisa when I think Kaisa...though for truth I was kind of imagining someone that looks like her too XD;
I'm starting to think I should cancel my preorder of the paperback now and just mooch off your copy, I'm running low on funds lol XD;

Ah Yuan // wingstodust said...

@MissAttitude,

lol I'm sad I didn't love it either. It's like, I wanted to but I just... can't. I guess I'm still not over my quibbles with the whole medieval fantasy setting after all. ^^;
lol, for me, when I see creepy aspects to a fairy tale I can't unsee it. But that doesn't mean I stop enjoying the fairy tale. I think it's a nice story, just... I wouldn't want the couple to end up together.

@Zetta

lol I see what you mean about the lack of mission for Kaisa, but it (surprisingly) didn't bother me when I read it. I don't know, even with the very strong medieval setting that I couldn't ignore, I still read this story as a fairy tale and wouldn't really care too much as long as they fulfill my requirements of 1) subverting said fairy tale and 2) couple gets a happily ever after, even if to end up together the author must pull a deus ex machina. lol well, I'm not too fond of the whole elders advising their apprentice thing (er, I'm kinda not very fond of medieval fantasy ant its troupes ATM. I used to love them but I think I got oversaturated at some point and now I can't look at their conventions without complaining in one form or another) but I did wish the whole greenwitch powers and the fantasy bits were explored further. I felt like Malinda Lo created this lush fantasy setting without giving us the magic.
Oh yes! I remember that scene. I don’t know, I thought of it as more of just Kaisa’s love for Ash that transcended the whole class thing instead of the class roles in this society being questioned at large. But maybe I should reread that scene to reevalute this impression of mine…
Huntress isn’t a sequel, but a prequel. Hopefully we get more out of the world this time, since she’s not sticking to a fairy tale now.

@Emma,

Lol well, when you read it, do tell me what you think! =D

@ninefly,

“Aisling” looked kinda Asian sounding at first glance until I realized it’s pronounced as ASH-ling. And there’s no “Ash” in any Chinese dialect I’m familiar with… (Okay, granted, I only know 2, and 3 if we count Hokkien since even though I can’t speak a mite of it I can tell someone is speaking that dialect just by the sounds coming out of their mouths.)
LOL Asian-character therapy, nice wording there. But yeah, ME TOO. I NEED TO GET ME SOME ASIAN FAIRY TALES DAMNIT. (And get to Warchild already! It’s a PRIORITY.)
Yeahhhhh, but at least Hero was hilarious and you get all into the guy’s head. I wasn’t even expecting much of a story from fairy tale retellings since I have a low bar for them and just want some interesting subversions of the original fairy tale with cute ending of cuteness. (Which is why I can devour most fairy tale retellings even if they aren’t very good. *COUGHSWANKINGDOMCOUGH*)
Hehe, Kuroki Meisa is the PERFECT cast, and you know it. And there’s already all those photobooks with Kuroki Meisa and Horikita Maki together, so Maki = Ash? Except, you know, way prettier and less freckles.
LOL, you can mooch off me anytime, darling. As long as I get my THE SUMMER I TURN PRETTY, that is!!!!! *-*

Doret said...

Very, very cautious. With sprinkled bouts of pessimism here and there. - love that, and it probably a very smart thing to do

Before I picked it up I had hopes that the characters would be Asian.

Pretty quickly I got the feeling that the characters were White. I just figured a lesbian retelling of a classic retelling with characters of color might a little too much for publishers.


I loved Ash and Kaisa. The early on, this is a perchance meeting scenes were very cute. But I agree this wasn't nearly enough Ash and Kaisa. I thought Lo did a very good job of making me believe in their attraction. I kept on reading for them.


In the first half of the book, it felt as if Lo could've gone several ways. But somewhere along the way she closed herself off.

I thought Ash visiting her mother's grave everyday, would lead to more.

Why didn't Ash have any of her mom's ability. I know its a retelling of a fairy tale but still.

What's the point of talking about what Ash's mom was capable of, if it wasn't passed on to Ash.

And I was dissappointed when the old woman from the first half (sorry can't remember her name) did go any where. I didn't understand her purpose.

Catherine (On The Nightstand) said...

Interesting and well-thought out review - sorry that it didn't turn out as Asian as it was apparently supposed to be. I haven't read Ash, but it's disappointing that it didn't turn out so well for you and others. :/

Oh, and with regards to the name Aisling, it's a modern Irish name, so that would explain the misfit there.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see this review. I also had mixed feelings about Ash, and agree with some of your criticisms.

Aisling is the Irish word for "dream" or "dream-vision"; it was a genre of political poem in Ireland in the 17th century and has become a popular female name in Ireland and the US in the last, oh, ten or twenty years or so. Like the names Niamh or Elinor, it comes from a specific European culture.

To me, the characters all seemed white for the same reason the characters in, say, Avatar: The Last Airbender seem Asian; all the cultural references surrounding them (particularly the hunting) has specific European references.

As a reader I wished Lo had given me a more vivid picture of what all the characters looked like, because the small hints (green eyes & the like) in the midst of the very Euro-lite setting only reinforced the sense that they were white. And I too had read her essay about the characters being Asian.

I also really wanted to love this book, but the 2D quality of the evil stepmother and the ending were huge letdowns for me.

Really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

EJ said...

I read the prequel, Huntress, first, and the fantasy culture in that book did seem very heavily influenced by East Asian culture. The characters' names, the food they ate, the philosophies they followed -- basically everything aside from the more Celtic-influenced faerie lore. (And I rather liked that they Sinicized the spelling of "Sidhe" to "Xi".)

I was quite surprised, then, when I moved on to Ash and found that its cultural references were very, very Western. I couldn't get my mind around the fact that it was supposed to be taking place in the same country as Huntress, however many centuries later it was. If I hadn't read Huntress first, I wouldn't have thought that there was supposed to be any East Asian influence in Ash at all; there was nothing in the culture presented in the book that would suggest that except for maybe, maybe Kaisa's name. And even that was an outlier in a book full of Aislinns and Claras and Gwens.

Cultural issues aside, Ash on the whole felt sort of unfinished, like there were lots of threads that never got followed up on and things that were supposed to be fleshed out that never were. I found it a much quicker read than Huntress (not just because it's shorter -- the latter had some pacing issues, I thought) and found the romance better-done, but on the whole I don't think it was a very good book. Which is a shame, because I wanted so badly to like it.