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This review was a bit of an adventure in itself.
I first heard of Ash from the author herself, via The Outer Alliance discussion list. Malinda Lo told the members about her upcoming novel, a retelling of Cinderella story through a gender-mixing point-of-view. I got very interested, and emailed Malinda to ask her if I could get an ARC. She answered me and gave me her publicist's email, but right after that, I had the problem with the kidney stones and got under the radar for a while, so I couldn't even think of writing to the publishing house.
Recently I rummaged through my emails and couldn't find the publicist's address. I must have accidentally deleted it, I thought. No problem: I can ask Malinda again (I hate pestering authors, but I would apologize and ask if she could just forward me that email again - nothing more).
As it happens, I had recently downloaded a Kindle for iPhone. I haven't bought Kindle yet, but I decided to try the app and, hey, it worked wonderfully! So I bought some books and started experimenting with it.
Then I found that Malinda's novel had a Kindle version already. What the hell?, I thought. I can have it right now. Sure, I'll have to pay for it, but at least half the books I review are paid for (still not satisfied with that arrangement, but that's another story). I went for it.
And got a #majorfail.
It seems that, for copyright reasons (don't ask me what those reasons are), Amazon is just not selling Ash to Latin America and the Caribbean. This is enough material for another post entirely, so I won't bother you with whining. This story ends well, after all.
For, while I was still fuming because of this other #AmazonFail (that made me write another email to Malinda and ask her again for a copy of her novel), a good thing happened. Just before the Easter holidays, I suddenly found a copy of Ash in a bookstore in my neighborhood (a note for Brazilian readers or visitors who by any chance are in São Paulo: Livraria Cultura is one of our finest bookstores, and it has a huge English-language book section - and no, I'm not getting a penny for this piece of advertising). So I bought the book immediately and took it home with me.
And feasted on it in a single day.
First, the hardcover edition is beautiful (yes, I judge a book by its cover - you all do it, don't tell me you don't). The delicate jacket design by Alison Impey and the photo by Amina Bech are exquisitely done, and catch the reader's eye at once, even in a massive bookshelf - the fuchsia-colored spine jumps to our attention wonderfully.
And then you open the book.
The story is divided in two parts: The Fairy and The Huntress. These are the characters around whom the interest of the protagonist, Aisling, will hover, always with a mix of fear and desire.
Aisling is the daughter of a merchant and a housewife who once studied to be a greenwitch. Not exactly sorceresses but not simple superstitious healers either (as the Philosophers, a kind of brotherhood of scientists/priests, try to demonstrate all the time to discredit them), the Greenwitches offer words of wisdom and solace to all who want to listen - but each generation there's less and less people listening, because of the prejudiced Philosophers.
The story begins with the death of Aisling's mother. She is consoled by Maire Solanya, the village greenwitch, who tells her she must remember her mother, but she must let her go. What she doesn't tell her (but Aisling, an intelligent and curious girl, finds out all the same) is that she can be kidnapped by fairies if she grieves too much by her mother's tomb.
Aisling, a girl who loves books and knowledge, tries to learn more from what little she could get from her dead mother's belongings. But her father, even being loving and caring, feels the need for another wife, and soon finds himself a widow with two daughters.
You all know the rest of the story - or you think you do. Aisling lives in a world where some roles are gender-changed in relation to our own, and, for instance, every kingdom has its Royal Huntress instead of a Hunter. When Aisling (whose nickname is Ash) starts living her ordeals, one of the role models she takes up is that of the Huntress, a focused, rather serene woman and also fond of stories and knowledge. Their casual meeting in a Yule party when Ash is still a child leave a deep impression in her - that she will carry until years later, when she's eighteen and another casual encounter, this time in the Wood, but with a different Huntress, will change her profoundly.
The Wood is also a key element in the story, almost a character per se. It is in this place where Ash will find refuge from her stepmother and her stepsisters's mistreats, and it is also there that she will meet a Fairy, an extremely beautiful and attractive being who will make her want to choose a different life, a life that can mean eternal servitude in Faerie if only she can get away from the harsh reality of the household to which she is bonded.
Both beings, the supernatural Fairy and the all-too-human Huntress, will entrance and fascinate Ash and make her get in touch with her innermost desires - until a point where she must make definitive choices, and learn to live with its consequences.
In a nutshell, Ash is a Lesbian Cinderella story. But saying that would only reduce the importance of the tale Malinda has deftly woven and pigeonhole it too fast and awkwardly. Ash IS (and that's really important) a story about a Cinderella who discovers love with a person of the same sex.
Ash is a bildungsroman of sorts - the book is too short for it to be a true lifestory, and that, IMHO, is its only weakness - I would really love if it was longer and if it could encompass more of Aisling's life... But that's the nature of the fable, isn't that so? A short, sharp tale which teaches us something. Not necessarily in a didatic way, but using wisdom.
Ash is an eye-opener, and not only for young people who are discovering their way in the world. Malinda Lo's retelling of Cinderella's story is a lesson in finding out who we are, and where our home really is. It doesn't matter where that home is located. the important thing is: do we belong?
Ash should belong to every family's library. It now belongs to mine, proudly.
(This review was originally published in Post-Weird Thoughts)