Ash, by Malinda Lo (Little Brown, 2009--officially Sept. 1, but Amazon says it's in stock now, YA, 264 pp in ARC form).
In a land where the old magic has become more story than reality, and the Greenwitches, the wise women who practice the old ways, are being challenged by the philosophers spreading a religion of rational thought, a girl grows up reading fairy tales. But Aisling (Ash for short) lives at the edge of the deep woods, where the night can carry the voices of inhuman riders, and the hoof beats of their horses...and she knows there is truth in the stories.
When Ash's mother dies, her father does not wait long before he brings home a new wife and her two daughters from the city. Ash, sad and lonely, is drawn to her mother's grave at night, despite of the warnings that this might draw the fairy folk to her, or perhaps because of them. Her father dies soon after, and Ash is taken from her home to work as a servant in her stepmother's town house. But one day she is pulled back through the woods, along an enchanted path that leads again to her mother's grave, and there she meets a man of the fairy kind, Sidhean.
"What are you seeking?" he said, and his voice was silky and cold. Though they were separated by several feet, she was disconcerted by the intensity of his gaze; she felt as if he could pull her open form afar.
"I came to see my mother." (page 66)
He cannot, or will not, bring her mother back, but he does carry Ash on his white fairy steed back to her stepmother's house. After, when Ash walks into the forest, at times they meet again, and a strange and otherworldly friendship develops...
In the real world, Ash cleans, and cooks, and grows up dressing her stepsisters for their matchmaking endeavours. Scattered through those years like bright lights are Ash's meetings with the King's Huntress, Kaisa, a young woman whose skill at tracking deer for the king's pleasure is unsurpassed. Ash and Kaisa slowly begin to seek each other out, never quite acknowledging that each is pulling the other toward her...and Ash decides that she will do anything to go to the prince's grand ball, where Kaisa will be. So she makes a bargain with Sidhean, and caught in the thrall of his fairy glamour, it does not seem such a bad one. Until she realizes that it Kaisa she truly loves, and she remembers that not one of the fairy tales she has read ends with the human woman coming home, unchanged.
This is a lovely reimagining of the Cinderella story, and I think it is one of the best fairy tale retellings I've ever read. It has a subtle medieval tapestry feel to it (leaping stags, and hunters in pursuit, dark woods imbued with magic--the sense of the numinous, just around the corner), that makes the story sing without overwhelming the narrative. It is told in the third person, which adds to the fairy tale feeling by giving the reader a subtle remove from the action that separates the story from the real world. The elements of the original Cinderella (complete with enchanted carriage) are present, but made fresh by the compelling characters that Lo has created, and the twists she adds to the plot. My one criticism is that I think there should have been more tension and drama at the end--things resolved rather too quickly and easily for my taste. And some readers might find that the book in general moves slowly, and feel that Ash doesn't actually Do enough. I would say, rather, that it was peacefully engrossing.
Lo's use of the third person was a good choice, I think, in as much as Ash falls in love with another woman. First person narrative requires the reader to become the character at a certain level, but by keeping Ash a step removed from this, even readers for whom this relationship might seem foreign are able to empathise with the giddy, dizzying sensation of falling hard in love--and Lo writes these feelings exquisitely! And for those who like to crush on the male lead, the relationship between Ash and Sidhean provides that opportunity. It is, incidentally, a clean read--although it is YA, there is nothing here that would keep me from giving this to an older middle school girl (it's about the same level, romance wise, of something like McKinley's The Hero and the Crown).
Lo has created a world in which heterosexuality is the norm, but where same sex relationships are unremarkable, adding diversity to the fantasy genre without in the least bit didactically belabouring the point. She has also quite simply created a beautiful book, one that I know I will be re-reading through the years.
ps. The cover is rather beautiful too, and kudos to Little Brown for giving us a heroine who is not necessarily white (I stared at for a while today, and decided it was too ambiguous to tell if she was Asian or not, and that each reader would have to make that call themselves). Here are Lo's thoughts about it, in the context of the ongoing discussions about representations of race in YA fiction (ie, Liar).
Other reviews can be found at The Compulsive Reader, In the Booley House, Killin' Time Reading, The Tainted Poet, and Presenting Lenore.
(ARC received from the publisher)