Friday, August 28, 2009

Ash, by Malinda Lo

In this altered version of the story of Cinderella, Ash is the orphaned daughter who is indentured to her stepmother and daughters because of her father's debts. There's all the cruel abuse from her former family, the denied ball, the dance with the gallant prince, and plenty of magic. But there is also a debt to a fairy, a beautiful huntress, and a very unexpected love story (let's just say that it isn't with the prince!).

Lo's retelling of the story is more of a riff on the entire genre of fairy tales, pulling in a wide variety of tales (and tales within tales) to tell at least two stories: first, the give a nice reinterpretation of what a fairy tale's meaning truly is about; and second, to speak of a friendship which is deeper and more important than any Disney romance has ever dreamed up for it. Lo very quickly focuses our attention on the dark side of these stories and, as for the romantic princess stuff, she directly criticises that as well (one of her heroines opines that she'd love to be a princess, just as long as it didn't involve having to marry a prince! and, in another case, the story finds Ash advising one of her evil step sisters to seek more from life than marriage). If this were really an attempt to tell the Cinderella story, this modern interventions would be distracting, but for Lo's grander mission, they fit in just fine.

It's not all smooth sailing. I found the beginning to be a bit of a drag to get through and the constant recitations of fairy tales didn't always interest me, but in retrospect everything had its place and its purpose. The strengths of this book are far more important: originality, compelling characters, and strong narrative. Most of all: being surprised along the way as the story I knew well could turned in directions that had never occurred to me.

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