The Lesbian Cinderella

Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo

If any of you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I’ve been waiting (for what seems like forever) for Malinda Lo‘s ASH to be delivered to me from Amazon. ASH arrived at long last yesterday and I devoured the book in one sitting.

This review comes in two parts: a review of the book itself and a few thoughts on what this book meant to me emotionally: as a bisexual woman, as a person of biracial Asian descent, and my slight crush on the author whom I have been, um, online stalking ever since I heard about this book. (I’m not scary, I swear!)

ASH first came to my attention when buzz went about the YA blogosphere about the so-called “lesbian Cinderella”. It was garnering good critical reviews from book bloggers and I liked that a novel—a young adult novel—with queer themes was being so well-received. Not that young adult novels don’t deal with LGBT themes at all, but like other “minority” books, sometimes the story is all about the “issues” and not about, well, just the people. (Please see: my dislike of most Asian-American protagonists.)

ASH is a story about a girl recovering from grief and finding the will and desire to carry on.

Part the First: ASH the Novel

Malinda Lo once mentioned that she wrote ASH because Robin McKinley hadn’t written a retelling of Cinderella. (See, there I go with the stalking thing again.) Congratulations, Ms. Lo, your novel reminds me in the best way of McKinley’s work: spare yet lyrical, with a fantastical quality. I don’t mean fantastical in a “fantasy genre” sense; I mean it in its fanciful, remarkable, and imaginative definition.

ASH takes place in some unnamed land outside time, where magic and myth and superstitions mingle with the everyday mundane. It is a very “once upon a time” sort of setting, unlike the high fantasy world of books like GRACELING by Kristin Cashore. This lends itself to the slight dream-like quality of the novel, which is lovely and slightly haunting in a way that reminds me of a bit of Terri Windling or Tanith Lee.

This book’s Cinderella is Ash, short for Aisling. As with other Cinderellas, she is orphaned and left to the tender mercies of her cruel stepmother. But unlike her fairy tale counterparts, Ash isn’t interested in marrying a prince and escaping her life of drudgery; she wants the fairies to steal her away.

Her mother used to tell her stories as a child and Ash dreams of encounters between herself and the mysterious fairies. Her wish is granted in the form of Sidhean, a terribly beautiful fairy who has claimed her for his own. Madness and death seem a little price to pay when there is nothing left to live for.

Then she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Little by little, Ash returns to life as she learns to ride and hunt beside her. But Sidhean’s price hangs over her head and Ash must find a way to appease him or be sundered from Kaisa forever.

There is so much good to say about this slim volume, the first being that I actually liked the fairy element. As a rule, I generally dislike fairies unless they are Victorian twee (like J.M. Barrie’s Tinkerbell) or gay men. To date, the only other novel with the Sidhe I’ve liked is Susanna Clarke’s JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL. Other excellent writers like Melissa Marr and Holly Black have written about the fey, but I have trouble getting into them because more often than not, their fairies get humanized (Aislinn from WICKED LOVELY and Kaye from TITHE, for example.)

Sidhean remains strange and alien and terrifying and it’s awesome because he contrasts with Kaisa’s warmth and humanity. Sidhean represents death while Kaisa represents life and you can bet who I was rooting for in the romantic triangle (of sorts) that develops.

The other thing I loved about this book is that the homosexuality is unremarkable. Sometimes two people of the same sex fall in love and no one bats an eye. I knew this was a part of the fairy tale that Lo wrote, but I love that gender/sex is unimportant. Ash falls in love with Kaisa because she is Kaisa and that is that. To me, that is pure romance.

Part the Second: What ASH Means to JJ

Lo has acknowledged that the “lesbian Cinderella” angle was a gimmick to help booksellers and librarians place the book. It’s one hell of a good gimmick; I picked up the novel because of it. Yet in many respects, this is not a lesbian story at all: Sidhean forms one part of the romantic “triangle” and he is male. And it isn’t as though Ash isn’t attracted to him either; she just happens to fall in love with Kaisa, who just happens to be a woman.

Perhaps it’s optimistic little me who wants so badly for love to be that simple, that it’s simply a matter of loving the person for who s/he is. That is the real fairy tale in Malinda Lo’s ASH and the theme that resonated the most with me. Of course, sexuality (not love) is a strange and constantly changing concept but I’ll be honest, I don’t like thinking much about sexuality as it relates to love. I can’t avoid it, but for me, sexual attraction grows the more I get to know someone, regardless of gender. There is the purely primal aspect of sex too and I had my fair share of flings with both sexes in college unconnected to emotional intimacy but love? That is something else altogether.

I was the sort of girl who formed intense homosocial relationships with other girls growing up. I had a myriad of male friends and liked to be seen as “one of the boys”, preferring even to remain somewhat genderless, but only one real and true female friend at a time. Just one. I would get jealous when she spent time with other girls and heaven forbid she find a boyfriend. She was my one and only and it killed me when people tried to separate us. (This is one of the reasons I can’t watch Heavenly Creatures more often than once every five years—I’m still recovering from my last viewing.)

Homosexual? That was something else. Not because I was afraid of my attraction to girls so much as I didn’t really develop any. (But I was always a late bloomer.) I had crushes, of course, and a lot of them were male. I had a lot of crushes on girls too, although I didn’t have the self-awareness to articulate that at the time. We live in a heteronormative world; I just thought I REALLY admired this girl and my wanting to be near her was simply wanting to be her friend.

Crushes I had, but love is something else again. I am 24 years old. I have been in love twice, both with men—one of whom I’m still with. I actually struggled with this for a long time because it was only fairly recently I came out to myself as bisexual, a label fraught with problems. It often has the connotation of being unable to make up one’s mind, or else just “experimenting” for titillation purposes. I had trouble with it for other reasons, the chief being: If I am bisexual, then why have I fallen in love only with men?

There’s no real simple answer for that. I fell in love with Bear because…because of so many reasons I couldn’t even begin to enumerate. He is my best friend. He is my current and most long-lasting One and Only. He plays with White-Harp. We laugh together. We skydive together. Perfection is being cradled in his big arms, rubbing my nose against his chest. He just happens to be male.

Kaisa just happens to be a woman. This small fact, more than anything else, moved me. If Kaisa had been a man and Sidhean a fairy woman, I would have wanted Ash to get together with the King’s Hunter anyway. It’s the person, not their gender that’s important.

ASH is not the first novel with queer themes I adored; I love Sarah Waters’ work and my adoration of anything by Jacqueline Carey is well-documented. (I tend to prefer lesbian queer themes over gay ones—for instance, my favourite character in Libba Bray’s GEMMA DOYLE books is Fee Worthington.) However, ASH is the first novel with an Asian protagonist I adored.

Wait…what? Ash is Asian?

Yes. According to Malinda Lo she is.

But…her name is Aisling, which is Irish for “dream” and it takes place in a vaguely European world with British myths!

So? It is a fairy tale after all. If Ash can fall in love with a woman, then why can’t she be Asian in once-upon-a-time Western Europe without it being remarked upon? In some respects, Ash isn’t Asian, or at least, she isn’t Asian as we know it because there is no Asia. But she looks Asian and that’s good enough for me.

Why? Didn’t you say you hate most Asian-American protagonists?

Yes, I did and yes, I still do for the most part. I like that Ash is Asian for the same reason I am drawn to Asian characters in TV and cinema. There is kinship, the same way a girl with green eyes and red hair might find kinship with a book/film/TV character who looked like her. I tend to view Death from Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN series as being Asian because there is kinship between her face and mine.

Death of the Endless

Death of the Endless

ASH delivered a lot for me emotionally that I don’t think will soon be matched by another book. Guh. Totally, utterly, completely recommended. READ IT. BUY IT.

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5 Responses to The Lesbian Cinderella

  1. Karros 22 Sep 2009 at 12:33 am #

    Ooooo. I must get this.

  2. Tara 22 Sep 2009 at 4:32 am #

    Interesting review, JJ.

    I’ve read plenty of literatures with male homosexual themes. I have yet to read anything with a lesbian element (other than fanfiction) and I may actually check this out. I do admit, the homosexual element attracts me, but I’m more attracted to the story.

    Thanks for this indepth review!

  3. SaraKate 22 Sep 2009 at 1:29 pm #

    I’m reading this book right now and found your review through Malinda Lo’s Twitter. It is such a beautiful book and I can’t wait to read more of it. I really love everything about Kaisa (not because she’s female, but because she’s Kaisa). I think I might be falling in love with her, too. ;)

  4. kongming 28 Sep 2009 at 10:50 pm #

    “But she looks Asian and that’s good enough for me.”

    Eh, not really good enough for me. I love the book, don’t get me wrong, but I thought it was odd of Malinda Lo to say that about Ash and Kaisa. It’s just of no consequence at all, since it’s not mentioned in the book and it never becomes something the characters have to deal with. It reminds me of JK Rowling saying Dumbledore was gay… outside of the books, after Harry Potter had finished, when it didn’t matter at all.

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