Review: “Ash” by Malinda Lo

Ash_MalindaLoFinal Rating:  fivecups Five cups of tea, which were probably fairy-brewed.

Find This Book On: Goodreads — Amazon

A few months ago, I picked up “Ash” for my Kindle when it went on sale, after following the author on Twitter and Tumblr for quite awhile. (She’s super cool, give her a follow!) I read the description and knew I just had to have it, and also that I would probably love it. But as I’ve learned, in the world of Kindle eBooks, nothing is ever sure. So I set it on the back burner for awhile and, as is so often the case, Life Happened and I forgot about it for a bit.

Last week, in an effort to tone down the snark on my #MandarayReads hashtag a bit, I chose to read “Ash” and immediately realized I’d made a terrible mistake: The book was far too gripping for me to devote any significant time (or brainpower) to the hashtag. Oops. There was also the problem of not wanting to spoil anything, because unlike most books I read during #MandarayReads, I actually wanted my followers to read it. (And no, not just for the comfort of shared misery.)

A few days later, I realized I was never going to be able to wait a week before reading “Ash” again. I was so thoroughly hooked that I was thinking about the book pretty much non-stop in my off hours. So I broke down and started reading again. That was last night. Today, I decided early on that my time would be devoted pretty much entirely to reading and finishing “Ash”. I regret nothing.

There is so much about this book to love that I’m honestly not sure if I can do it justice. The writing is sharp, the pacing is perfect, and you bond with the characters immediately. (And I do mean immediately) The author also creates a world which is incredibly believable, despite being confined. A lot of times, the books I read make the mistake of putting characters into a fishbowl world without ever giving us readers a good reason why–this is what makes some settings feel so contrived and dissatisfying. “Ash” does not have this problem, because the smallness of the world is a kind of confinement that you would expect from a young girl who has no power over her life. The world in the book grows as she grows, and it is entirely appropriate.

Did I mention the characters were relatable? This is less prevalent for characters were are meant to dislike, of course, but even they have glimpses of humanity and reasons for what they do, even if those reasons are skewed by hatred and bitterness. And though my heart constantly ached for the book’s main character, Ash, I also found myself relating to her in a very deep and personal way. Her journeys were very similar to some of the journeys I had to undertake when I was roughly her age, and the way she longs for an escape–no matter how painful that escape ultimately is–reminds me poignantly of my own longings. Her grief was like a tangible thing, and not at all the casual retelling I was expecting.

On a note of personal taste, I was particularly impressed that the author managed to capture this kind of familiarity using a 3rd person perspective, rather than a 1st person one. In my experience, the latter is far more expedient when it comes to helping readers bond with a character, but with “Ash” I barely even noticed the lack of first person PoV.

Something which surprised me was the strong (and immediate) focus on fairies and the cultural narratives surrounding them. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, since it is a retelling of a fairy tale, but I guess my brain has been rewired badly enough through years of Disney brainwashing to expect that fairy tale will not necessarily equal fairies. That is most definitely not the case with “Ash”, though. Fairies and The Fae are both essential to the story and how it unfolds, and if you are the sort of person who views such things with disdain, you will not like this book. (Also, I’m gonna give you some major side-eye.)

I, for one, enjoyed the Fae-focus immensely, particularly in how the author uses it to (gently) posit old traditions, femininity, and oral history against the stark, “truth” of written history and philosophies of the new age, largely presided over by men. In most books, this clash would probably take over the whole story and possibly even come across as a self-congratulatory moment of “Hey looky what I learned in the “Wicca” section of Barnes & Noble!”. But instead, it serves largely as a backdrop in “Ash”, pushing various conflicts forward as needed and then leaving the characters and the world the hell alone while they get on with things. I felt like this was a very honest and true representation of how culture and philosophies change in the real world–assuming a land is at peace and there are no physical conflicts–it’s a slow, largely piecemeal process which is exacerbated by some things and stalled by others. And, it offers up a nice setup for future conflicts without bashing me over the head with a stick and yelling “HEY GUESS WHAT PEOPLE ARE GOING TO SWING SWORDS OVER THIS EVENTUALLY.”

There will be some who picked this book up largely for the promised romance between two women, rather than the traditional “Prince Charming” narrative that Cinderella currently has in our culture. (Fun fact: I despise Prince Charming, both as a character and as a concept.) Since I have read (far too few) books with non-heterosexual relationships, I am probably not a great judge of where this relationship falls on the spectrum. Personally, I thought the relationship between Ash and the Huntress was rather moving and deeply satisfying. I enjoyed that their relationship was treated as completely normal (like it should be) and even inevitable in some ways, and I was cheering for them from the very start. Many times I felt like a giggly, sign-carrying fangirl where the both of them were involved. It probably helps that I personally found Kaisa incredibly attractive and would be more than happy to hang out in the woods with her if the whole thing with Ash doesn’t work out? You bring the wine I’ll bring the venison y/n?? (Call me)

Finally…I think the most profound thing about this book is that, somehow, it took me back to a place that I hadn’t been to for many years. How the author managed to so perfectly recreate that mental space I privately carved out for myself during my early teen years, I don’t know. But she does. It was like coming home after a long, long time away, and finding that all my things were still just where I’d left them. It felt wonderful, even though so much of the book centers around sadness and longing. Being able to escape so completely like that reminded me why I love books as much as I do, and brought back so many feelings and memories that I had half-forgotten. In a funny sort of way, reading “Ash” kind of re-centered me. I know that probably sounds like a lot to expect from a YA novel, and obviously since this was a personal nostalgia-trip, I’m not saying the book will have that effect on everyone. (Though I certainly hope it does!) But it was nice. Really, really nice.

Overall, “Ash” was an amazing experience and a book which will stay with me for years. It’s been a long time since I read something I just couldn’t stand to put down, and for that I am deeply grateful. Please, please, please go buy this book right now. You won’t regret it, I promise.

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