Ash by Malinda Lo – 3.5/ 5 stars
I wanted to LOVE Ash by Malinda Lo. I wanted this to be my next favorite book. A lesbian retelling of Cinderella, probably the fairy tale I relate to the most, was destined to be a favorite. So, I looked, and I looked, and I looked for reasons to absolutely love this book, but ultimately, it ended up being a pretty average book.
What started off with a lot of potential, and a lot of initial goodwill on my part, ended up not amounting too much. I, mistakenly, assumed that the prince would instead be a princess, but that’s not the twist. Instead, the king’s hunter is a female huntress and she’s the one Cinderella (Ash) notices. Okay, so, not what I expected, but the unexpected can be good or even great, so this was not a major problem. Instead, there were several other serious problems with the book.
This is a YA book, so it easily could have been a coming out/ coming of age YA book. I would have been fine with that. Except, that’s not exactly what this is. Instead, for a long time, Ash does not question what she is feeling and then when she does, it’s more about the love triangle than it is about her sexuality. For me, it was not clear whether Ash is a lesbian or bi/pansexual, though I suspect it is the latter. This is one of the things I struggled with in the book. I wanted Ash to either embrace her sexuality or grapple with it, but she didn’t do either and instead, seemed to just let the moment decide for her. Now, there is nothing wrong with a character shirking labels; I myself did that for much of my sexual identity. But that’s not what is going on here. Instead, it is almost as if Ash is too young to understand or have sexual thoughts. She comes across more curious about her love interests than attracted to them, which felt more like asexuality than anything else. Again, I would have no problem with an asexual Ash, but I gather that’s not what she is supposed to be. It’s as if Lo was not sure how to portray Ash’s sexuality and thus we end up with this unclear sense of it.
In addition to the sexuality piece being written in an unclear manner, there is an unclear love triangle which is partly murking the waters on Ash’s sexuality. In this retelling, Ash does not have a fairy godmother; instead, her fairy is a dark and dangerous male fairy. He is the other love interest, but it is not quite clear whether she is attracted to him sexually or simply pulled in by this supernatural power he exudes. Maybe it is clearer than I imagine and I simply could not come to terms with the idea that her fairy “savior” is abusing his power to get her to run off with him. It was disturbing, especially since Ash sometimes seems to think that she is attracted to him. It was a close portrayal of how abuse victims end up thinking that they are the one at fault. But, it is all too vague to state emphatically that this is what Lo intended, so it may just be a poorly fleshed out love triangle. Regardless, I was not a fan of the triangle nor of the idea of Ash falling for her fairy godfather.
But, for me, the biggest problem with Ash is that the love interest is an incredibly slow burn. It is often so slow, one is simply reading tedious plot that does not go anywhere or develop anything. In fact, I would have been happy with more character development or more clearly fleshed out plot lines. But instead, there are irrelevant scenes of Ash waiting for something to happen. I grew so bored, this was nearly a DNF. Eventually, it gets better and more things happen, but still they do not happen between Ash and the huntress, who spend long sections of the book having no contact with each other. By the end, I do not understand why either of them are interested in each other. To be fair, I strongly prefer slowly built relationships, but this one was so sparse, it barely made sense.
There was so much potential in this story that I want to rewrite it myself and flesh out a deeper, more beautiful story. The premise is solid and there is much to work with, but it did not end up satisfying me in the end. But, there were parts I enjoyed and I am glad I read it. I am not certain I will read more by Lo, though I want to do so. I worry that these concerns will linger in her other books based on snippets of reviews I’ve seen, leaving her lower on the list of authors I hope to revisit someday. Which is a shame as I think there was real potential for me to fall in love with Lo’s body of work.