Malinda Lo’s 2010 debut novel Ash lyrically blends the tale of Cinderella into a world of greenwitches and diamond trees, of dying magic and glittering fairy realms where gifts come with a price. It is imaginatively unique and yet utterly familiar, a world that I slipped into with ease, with royal courts and enchanted forests that are at once benevolent and dangerous.
The story begins with the death of Ash’s mother, quickly followed by the death of her father, leaving her bereft and anchorless in a place far from her home. At first, she wanders during the night like a specter, heedless of her safety, tripping headfirst into the spookier parts of the Wood. Her only comforts are the fairy tales within this fairy tale, for her mother was among the few that believed in the old ways and would speak to her of the fairies often.
Fairy tales retold are my comfort fiction, as well. There’s something about reading an old-yet-new story that’s like a balm for the soul, where you know the skeleton of the plot, but each version, like each human being, is unique.
In this world, Ash is one of the few with a little magic within her, enough to attract the notice of those fairies of whom the tales give warning of entrapment and death. Before long, she befriends the elusive fairy Sidhean; not long after that, she meets the King’s Huntress, earthy Kaisa. On the days when she’s not under the thumb of her brutish stepmother, Ash accompanies one of the two, whether in the haunting and enchanted Wood, or on the wild and exuberant Hunt. Ash begins to love each of them, but she must choose between these two — for they cannot coexist in the same world.
Beguiled by her fairy godfather, imperiled by her stepmother, Ash undergoes a transformation that will end with her finding the joy in living, and the freedom in loving.