YA recommendations with lists, pictures, and frequent parentheticals.
Spoiler Rating: High
I won't lie; I rushed through Ash years ago, and didn't particularly like it. It was marketed to me as a lesbian Cinderella story, and if there are two things that'll perk my ears up, it's lesbian characters and Cinderella stories. So I settled down with Ash and a cozy blanket and high expectations.
But it was so different from what I'd thought it would be that I just couldn't stop thinking, This is wrong. This isn't supposed to happen. This isn't how Cinderella goes. Holy crap what on earth is this.
(Maybe I should've actually listened to that "It's not the fairy tale you remember" warning on the cover?)
At that time, I recognized that I was so hung up on its nontraditional aspects (read: Sidhean, Ash's fairy dude) that I couldn't accurately rate its merits, so I (mentally) gave it a couple extra stars as an apology for being a bad reader.
Well, I've reread it with a much more open mind, and I can tell you that I'm even more disappointed this time around.
In the first half of the book (titled "Part I: The Fairy"), Ash grows from age 12 to age 18, and does the standard Cinderella thing: orphaned, then forced to serve her stepmother and stepsisters.
The only notable differences from the generic Cinderella story are:
The fairies in this book are Lizzy's favorite type: the tricking-mortals-into-eternal-servitude ones—the ones who, say, switch out human babies with wicked changelings, and drive people mad.
Her first conversation with Sidhean is appropriately frightening:
Needless to say, I love this.
Ash knows that the fairies are creepy as hell, but Sidhean is kind(-ish) to her, and they spend some quality time hanging out together in the Wood. In short order she's dreaming of living with Sidhean in the fairy world, because that'd be approximately 200% better than a life of servitude to her stepmother.
In the second half of the book (titled "Part II: The Huntress"), Ash and the king's huntress Kaisa have several unexpected meetings in the Wood, decide Hey this is nice, and begin scheduling times to hang out together—mostly on horseback. Kaisa teaches Ash how to ride a hunter, and I melt into a shining puddle of lesbian-romance-on-horseback contentment.
Ash stops meeting Sidhean because she's (a) super busy with work, and (b) experiencing actual human friendship, hurrah.
Kaisa eventually invites Ash to two big events (the first royal hunt of the year and the Souls Night masquerade), and both times Ash begs Sidhean for help in attending. He agrees on the condition that she repay this debt with her freedom; she will become his for eternity. Well, she thinks, that's what I'd been planning all along. So she agrees.
Meanwhile, we learn that Sidhean had tried to kidnap Ash's mom when she was a girl, and in return she cursed Sidhean:
But the girl Sidhean was cursed to fall in love with turned out to be Ash. He's not pleased about the whole curse thing:
So Ash attends the hunt and the ball, realizes very belatedly that she's in love with Kaisa and that disappearing into the fairy world and never seeing her again would be sad, and...well.
The Climax And Conclusion,
And How They're A Disappointment
I guess I should first mention that much earlier in the book, a young Ash (incensed at her new life of servitude) begged her mother's spirit for advice on how to survive. Mother's spirit assured her, "There will come a change, and you will know what to do," which Ash naturally found unhelpful.
Ash spends much of the book hoping to be taken by Sidhean into the fairy world, and then she changes her mind—but the moment of realizing This maybe isn't what I want after all isn't a lightning-crashing, earth-quaking moment. It's not a heart-dropping understanding that she's irreparably screwed herself over. It's just a slow-dawning, This maybe isn't what I want after all. Followed by a touch of the sads.
(This seems to be a good moment to mention that the book's writing style doesn't lend itself to accentuated displays of emotion; Ash generally seems rather even-keeled and remote, almost unflappable. I'd rather her be more expressive, more flappable.)
Fast-forward a few more pages. It's twelve pages before the end of the book—during the Yule ball—and Ash abruptly understands that she's in love with Kaisa. This happens:
So Ash leaves to ball to find Sidhean, who's waiting to make her his forever.
YOU READ THAT RIGHT. She strolls up to the fairy who plans to enslave her, says, "If you love me you'll let me go," and he says, "Oh. Okay."
But surely, you plead, the one night she spends with him is, like, over a year in human time, and when she wakes up there's panic about whether Kaisa's (a) still alive and (b) in love with her?
No. The answer is no. Ash wakes up a few (human) hours later, returns to the palace, finds Kaisa, and they pledge their love to each other.
This is the most anticlimactic climax I can remember reading, and there is at least one book I read recently that face-planted when trying to stick a memorable ending. (Why is it that the only "If you love someone, let them go" books I've read have terrible conclusions?)
What I'd Thought The Climax Would Be
I'd had a very specific idea of what this story's climax was going to be, in large part because of what I thought was heavy-handed foreshadowing.
See, the book is filled with fairy tales (that Ash reads to herself, and that she's told by other people) about how huntresses used to be the human emissaries to the fairies, and how great huntresses of the past would enter the fairy world to perform marvelous deeds—including retrieving innocent humans stolen away by the fairies.
So here I was, unable to remember how the book ended and guessing that Kaisa would have to chase Ash into the fairy world and do something awesome to get her back from Sidhean.
But no. Ash just ambles over to Sidhean and said, "Let's not do this whole I'm-yours-for-life bargain after all," and he says, "Cool, no prob," and I'm left dying of both boredom and disbelief, and ultimately haunted by unfulfilled visions of Kaisa riding badass into the teeth of a forbidding alien realm.
I mean, it's neat that Ash took care of the problem herself—I like it when people save themselves rather than wait for the Love Interest to save them—but there was so much foreshadowing that I felt both cheated and tricked. And have I mentioned bored?
What's The Conflict?
I'm genuinely uncertain what this book's primary conflict is supposed to be.
All signs seem to point to Ash's impending captivity in the fairy world just as she realizes she has a reason to stay in the human world—and by "all signs" I mean (a) the fact that this is one of Ash's two "major" realizations in the final quarter of the book, (b) that her confrontation with Sidhean is the one life-changing event that must occur before she and Kaisa are reunited, and (c) that it's specifically mentioned in the book's blurb:
However. Ash doesn't even strike this deal with Sidhean until late in the book, and she doesn't start to regret it until quite a bit later. There's barely any time for this conflict to develop before the book ends. And worse, it's resolved in almost no time, with virtually no effort on Ash's part at all.
That scarcely qualifies as the primary conflict of the book.
So is there even a "main" conflict in this book?
Sources Of Potential Conflict That Didn't Provide Much Conflict
1. The Stepmother and Stepsisters
In, say, the movie Ever After, the stepmother provides a major source of plot-propelling conflict; she forces Danielle/Cinderella into servitude, mocks and torments her, publicly humiliates her, thwarts her plans for happiness, sells her into slavery. Each scene involving the two of them is wrought with emotion, develops their characters, and shoves the plot forward.
In Ash, the stepmother is a nuisance. Yeah, she tosses Ash into the cellar a couple times, but for the most part she leaves Ash to her work. Ash adapts quickly to her new role, and lets her stepmother's cruel words slither in one ear and out the other. We're told that Ash despises this life, but it looks like she handles the work easily and doesn't let herself be terribly bothered by anything. And we barely see the stepmother on the page at all; the story focuses heavily on Ash and Sidhean, then Ash and Kaisa.
By the time I would've expected some great, explosive scenes between Ash and her stepmother—specifically, when Ash is caught coming home from the Souls Night masquerade wearing her fairy dress and fairy jewels—Ash has already decided she doesn't care what her stepmother does to her, because she's going to be living with Sidhean soon anyway.
Ash is certainly shocked at what happens, but she's not deeply affected by it. By deciding to no longer care what her stepmother says and does, Ash takes power into her own hands and instantly dissolves the conflict.
After this event, we see about as little of the stepmother as we had before. Ash gets Sidhean to cancel their agreement, then returns to the palace to see Kaisa, making a pit-stop along the way to collect her belongings. She has a brief and pleasant encounter with the nicer of the two stepsisters, Clara:
And that's the last we know of the stepmother. We're told that she shouts after Ash, who ignores her so hard that we don't even know if the sound of the woman's voice had any mental or emotional impact on Ash at all.
I rate both this conflict and this resolution underwhelming.
As for the stepsisters: their only purpose in the story is to aggravate Ash, who might clench her jaw in response, but that's about it. No fireworks to see here. They affect the plot even less the stepmother.
There's no conflict with Kaisa at all. The two women meet, hang out, get close, fall in love.
Ash doesn't do much in the way of internal struggles. She appears to like herself just fine. She never doubts her self-worth. She doesn't seem to experience conflicting beliefs or ideas or emotions. We're told that she dislikes her life, but she's not broken by it.
And her sexuality is a non-issue. Yeah, her realization that she loves Kaisa is chameleon-slow, moving in short jolts and freezing steps. But she doesn't agonize about it or anything; it just takes a while for her to get to the point of Oh, hey, this is love that I'm feeling.
In short, no, I didn't feel that there was even one strong source of conflict in this book.
Obviously I love the horseback-courtship thing that Ash and Kaisa have going on.
I also appreciate how slowly their relationship developed; Ash is intrigued by Kaisa, and then flustered around her, then increasingly comfortable. There's no Suggestive Licking Of Fingers or Uninterrupted Stares Of Longing or whatever.
Would've been nice if Kaisa had been a more fleshed-out character, but at least theirs wasn't instalove.
Despite my complaints, I enjoyed Ash well enough. It didn't insult me with idiot-level puzzles; it didn't frustrate me with a terrible protagonist; it didn't enrage me with terrible portrayals of love. It lacked solid conflict, and as a result its pacing was odd, but its heart was in the right place. I don't think it's overly generous of me to give it two and a half instead of just two stars.
I'm really hoping there's a five-star lesbian Cinderella story out there for me somewhere, though. Maybe one day.