Ash by Malinda Lo – Review

Ash

Lisa Harrison

Lisa is a proofreader and aspiring publisher who lives in a Northern town where people still travel by horse and cart. She believes that reading is fundamental. Find her on Twitter – @immin

Malinda Lo, Ash (Hodder Children’s Books, 2010) £5.99

 

One of my favourite televisual treats of the moment (aside from RuPaul’s Drag Race, obvs) is Once Upon a Time. The show’s premise is that of fairytale characters cursed to forget their real identities and live a Groundhog Day existence in small-town Maine. It’s all a bit flannel and heartbreak: Snow White and Prince Charming can’t seem to work things out, and Red Riding Hood can’t find a single pair of pants. Practically every single cast member is appallingly pretty. I love it.

Unfortunately, the show is not without its flaws. As of right now, there aren’t any queer characters. When questioned on this point, the show’s co-creator Adam Horowitz replied: ‘How do you know?’

Admittedly, this could be down to the source material. Once Upon a Time largely rests on the Disney canon, and despite having coded so many of its villains as queer (Gaston wouldn’t be out of place at a bear night, amirite?), maybe Disney simply isn’t ready for a queer dwarf singing ‘hi hooomo’ on his way to work, let alone Ariel finding solace in the tentacles of Ursula the Sea Witch (I’m sorry).

But here’s the thing: invisible visibility does not exist, and coding is so two thousand and late. I am completely over this trend of authors responding to accusations of heteronormativity in their work by saying that established characters have been gay all along (hello, J.K.), or that they are hiding away in the background while the straight people are tonguing each other. Don’t tell me that queer characters might be there, if I squint: SHOW ME THE GAYS.

With this in mind, why wait for the likes of Disney to give us a queer hero or heroine?

Ash is a perfect example of queering the canon. It has nothing to do with hanging tasteful drapes on heavy artillery, but rather is about creating our own folklore by making classic stories more inclusive to queer perspectives. In Lo’s retelling of Cinderella, Ash’s interest lies not with the prince, who is largely ignored, but with the King’s Huntress. It is a slow burning and sweetly realistic romance that barely scrapes the boundaries of ‘PG’, which I quite appreciated. After all, Ash falls under the Young Adult category, and if I wanted smut I’m sure that the internet would be more than happy to provide. A subtle, happily-ever-after genre story that just happens to be between two women, on the other hand, would be much harder to find.

In fact, though the lesbian romance is a prominent feature, and one on which the marketing of the novel largely relied, it is not the main focus. The story hinges almost entirely on Ash’s tumultuous emotional growth. She is introduced as a carefree girl with a love for stories, and taken through the loss of her old life to the emergence of a new one. Ash is not your traditional, simpering, passive princess, and her development is much more authentic than that of Disney’s Cinderella: being forced by her grandmother into the role of kitchen maid and general dogsbody is not a mere inconvenience, but a source of rage and bitterness (possibly because she doesn’t have a happy troupe of talking mice to help out). In the same way, Lo humanises Ash’s so-called ‘ugly’ stepsisters, fleshing them out into characters with motivations of their own, whether it be love or the necessities of financial security.

(Incidentally, did you know that in the Grimm version of Cinderella, the stepsisters were forced to cut off part of their feet in order to make the slipper fit? Ew.)

Lo balances this sense of emotional realism with a perfect handle on fairytale aesthetic. Her writing is beautiful, well-matched to the genre and almost languorous at times, which is especially effective during the scenes where Ash walks through the woods. The forest in Ash is almost a character in itself, carrying darkness and light, and teaming with both menace and restorative promise.

In Ash, as in the Grimm tales, fairies are bloody terrifying and magic comes with a price. She may beg for a wish from her scary neighbourhood fairy, but must owe him a favour in return. It is this favour on which the main plot lies, but though Ash at times looked to be straying dangerously close to Twilight territory with a love triangle theme, the choice between the fairy Sidhean and the Huntress Kaisa is not based on which one of her potential lovers is hotter, but on Ash’s autonomy, which is a great example for young people and incredibly refreshing to see. Crucially, the decision has nothing to do with gender: the world in which this story is set does not seem to discriminate against same-sex couples.

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I bet they have primetime TV gays…

Ultimately, this is the novel I wish I had been able to read as a child, because though I never wanted to be the princess on Disney’s terms, I’d certainly reconsider it now.

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