Malinda Lo, Ash
I checked this out because I occasionally read Scalzi’s “Big Idea” posts and Malinda Lo wrote one. In it, she described the premise of Ash, which is essentially “Gay Cinderella!”
Well, not quite. In some ways, Ash is the classic Cinderella story: wicked stepmother, one or more evil stepsisters, the Prince’s search for a bride, the obligatory “The magic will wear off by midnight!” clause, and a dance with the Prince during which he finds the Cinderella character (the titular Ash) inscrutable and desirable.
But Ash isn’t really about any of those things. Ash is about the main character’s friendship with a fairy prince and her budding romance with the king’s huntress, Kaisa. The Cinderella touches are really quite incidental.
Which, you know, is okay. As Lo herself writes:
My debut novel, Ash, is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. But the big idea behind it isn’t that Cinderella is a lesbian. The big idea is this: Nobody in the book cares that she’s a lesbian.
This is true. No one ever speaks negatively about Ash’s sexuality. But what really made me want to read the book was this statement by Lo:
My first draft of Ash was, I admit, a relatively straightforward — and straight — retelling of the fairy tale. Ash, the Cinderella character, fell in love with the prince. But then I asked a friend to read it, and she did me the biggest favor ever: She told me that Ash and the prince lacked chemistry. She also pointed out that Ash had a lot of chemistry with this other character in the book, who happened to be a woman.
This sounded really interesting to me; I mean, I can’t count the number of modern fairy tales I’ve read where the main characters had ZERO chemistry but were forced together because that’s how the story was “supposed” to go. I thought to myself, “Mankiller, it would be cool to read a book where the chemistry between two characters was so strong that it necessitated a complete rewrite. Also, gay Cinderella just sounds cool. I am all for it!”
So I read it. And honestly? It doesn’t really work.
Frankly, I don’t think Ash really has chemistry with anyone, because frankly, Ash is a pretty poorly-written character. She’s too insular and unformed to make a compelling protagonist, which is really unfortunate since the novel centers on her relationships. There’s no there there, and man, does it show.
The book can be split into roughly three main points: Ash’s relationship with her family, both biological and step; Ash’s relationship with the fairy world/fairy prince; and Ash’s relationship with Kaisa. None of these relationships is really explored in depth–Lo leaves WAY too many unanswered questions about EVERYTHING. For example, Ash’s mother dies and her father quickly remarries and then dies himself. Why did he get hitched again so quickly? Why did he kick it so fast? These questions are never answered, and therefore end up feeling like plot contrivances. And as for Ash’s relationship with the fairy world, some explanation is offered as to why she’s so close to it and others aren’t (although the explanation has more to do with her mother than with Ash herself), but by and large? Lo tries to make everything so mysterious that it winds up being boring. Ash and her fairy prince barely talk, and when they do, they don’t say much of note. The same can be said of her relationship with Kaisa, the huntress. The relationships are about equally inscrutable, which is why it’s so hard to tell why Ash picks one person over the other.
Some things are done well. Ash’s attachment to the Prince is pretty clearly not really sexual in nature: she’s in love with his beauty and his difference and the fact that here he is, offering an alternative to her completely sucktastic human life. She doesn’t really want to bone him, although there are sensual aspects to their relationship; any heterosexual woman who’s ever had a girl-crush will recognize the relationship dynamic immediately. So Lo does a good job of portraying a friendship that’s so deep that it’s almost–but not really–sexual. But Ash herself is such a cipher…I mean, Lo is pretty deliberately vague about Ash’s age, but she’s in her mid-teens by the time she meets Kaisa. And yet there’s never any point before that where she goes, “Hmmm…honestly, given my druthers, I’d rather make out with a girl.” Because Ash doesn’t seem to think about sex or relationships at all.
I call bullshit. MAJOR BULLSHIT.
Leaving all that aside, though, my most basic problem with the book was the fact that the way Lo has constructed sexuality in this world is rather poorly thought-out. She writes:
So I decided that in Ash’s world, homosexuality is entirely normal. People are more likely to be heterosexual, but nobody blinks when they see a same-sex couple. It is a natural and legitimate state of being.
Okay, BUT: Ash’s step-sisters are still banking their futures on marrying rich MEN. No one ever even mentions the possibility that they could ensure their financial stability by marrying rich women. I mean, all things being equal, marrying for money should be marrying for money, right? Also, the Prince of the kingdom is being pressured to marry a WOMAN. Fortunately for him, it seems that he’s heterosexual, but what if he hadn’t been? What would they have done then? Forced him to marry a woman whether he wanted to or not? Allowed him to marry a well-connected man and then adopt/have a biological child with a suitable female partner?
Despite the fact that homosexuality is no big deal, there’s seemingly no provision made for gay marriage. Which, frankly, is bullshit. It seems to me that true acceptance of homosexuality would result in a set of at least slightly different social mores. If homosexuality was really “a natural and legitimate state of being,” then there would be customs in place to accommodate it. But there aren’t. Lo essentially took the customs of a heteronormative pre-industrial culture and stuck acceptance in there, and I’m sorry: it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a sociological perspective. Needed a little more thought right there…
Recommended for: It’s honestly not bad, especially for a first novel. Despite all my bitching, I think it’s worth checking out if you enjoy fairy tales.
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