Ash by Malinda Lo It’s fairy tale time! Here is Cinderella re-envisioned both more modern and more magical. It’s set on the edge of Woods, and there are rumors of Faeries in the wood. The modern Philosophers discourage belief in them, but the old Greenwitches still do. Our heroine Aisling’s mother was once apprentice to the local Greenwitch, but Aisling’s education in magic is limited to the fairy tales her mother tells her. (A note for those not familiar with Gaelic: Aisling is pronounced ASH-ling, so that Ash is a natural nickname.) Then her mother dies, and Aisling is grief-stricken. She takes to spending all her time on her mother’s grave, much to the concern of her father and the local Greenwitch. They’re afraid she’ll attract the Fairies, but she is too young and too absorbed in her grief to care. He remarries, probably hoping that new sisters and a new mother will help. And then he dies, debt-ridden, and the new stepmother, never overly kind, takes out her disappointment and anger on Ash. They move closer to the capital, hoping for a rich husband for the oldest stepsister, and Ash is forced to take the place of the household servants to repay her father’s debt. But all this time, Ash has been sneaking to the Woods whenever she can, occasionally meeting with a handsome but eerie Fairy lord. In spite of the new Philosophers, the Hunt, led by the King’s Huntress, is an ancient tradition still kept, and the town where Ash now lives is the starting point for the Hunt. Gradually, during her occasional escapes into the forest, Ash comes to know the young Huntress, Kaisa, who teaches her to track and ride. Increasingly, Ash is pulled between the inhuman and powerful attraction to her fairy lord and the complete escape from the human world that he promises and her attraction to the Huntress.
Besides being beautifully told, the story has some unique points to recommend it. First, many fairy tales don’t have any fairies in them, but this retelling turns the bland and benign fairy godmother of the original back into the chancy Good Folk that have always felt more real to me. They are neither good nor safe, and yet they are the closest thing to an ally that Ash has. There’s magic, and adolescence, for you. Secondly, I confess that I didn’t notice much until a bi friend pointed it out to me, but fairy tales’ assumption that finding the right person of the opposite gender will lead to happily ever after is problematic. This is the first fairy tale to my recollection that isn’t blindly hetero. Ash has to choose between her fairy and her human love – clearly between a natural and an unnatural attraction, but it is the pull to the male fairy that’s depicted as unnatural. That Lo was able to make this work without feeling out of a place is an accomplishment for which I applaud her. This might just be one of my favorite fairy tale retellings of all time.