“Ash” by Malinda Lo

I’ve been busy working on my list of good books, in the fantasy genre, that contain GLBTQ characters and one of those books just stood out from the rest so it’s getting its own entry. I’m going to keep the plot spoilers to the minimum although I’ll be happy to discuss the plot in the comments.

My local supermarket has a tiny area where it sells books. The young adult section is even smaller and filled with the same old bestsellers like Twilight and Twilight 2 and Book-That-Looks-Similar-To-Twilight. One day when I walked by the book section, there on the shelves was the unthinkable; this national chain, in its very select choice of teenage books had Ash.

Now that wouldn’t be significant if you looked at the cover. It’s a shiny book that blends in with all the other young adult titles. The back cover offers no hint to the startling twist that is in the book.

“With her parents gone, Ash finds herself a servant in the house of her ruthless stepmother and there seems no hope of finding happiness again. But Ash is unaware of her mother’s legacy, and that it will lead her to a magical place. A place where love, identity and belonging are all waiting.”

They were selling a ‘lesbian retelling of Cinderella’ written by a lesbian author, to children without as much as a warning label. The last time I was in a bricks and mortar bookstore, I found the same thing. Ash was there, on one of the book displays with nothing to separate it from the rest of the young adult literature.

I find that attitude so utterly refreshing.

The ‘lesbian retelling’ is the authors words. I, personally, read Ash as being bisexual but I’m sure we’re entitled to have a difference of opinions on that.

Ash is a retelling of Cinderella, with its own unique twists on the tale, breathing life and magic into the fairytale. If falls very firmly into the same category that many young adult books do nowadays, Ash finds herself in the centre of a love triangle, forced to choose between an utterly gorgeous, powerful, immortal being, and a human friend (there’s also a handsome prince but he’s never really a contender). Each represents different things to her.

It is barely worthy of note that one of the love interests is male and the other is female.  Ash’s sexuality is treated as normal, there is no angst in regards to the gender of her love interests; it’s not considered out of the ordinary by anyone.

There is plenty of angst about other things. Being Cinderella she has both her father and mother’s deaths to contend with as well as a wicked stepmother and her step-sisters.

I wanted to love Ash far more than I did. In theory it hits the spot, it’s a fairytale retelling set in a fantasy world, with queer characters and I absolutely adore fairytale retellings. In practice it just missed the mark.

I also love books with strong heroines but Ash never clicked for me. Her female love interest was by far the most interesting of the characters and I found myself, throughout the book, wishing I could get a glimpse into Kaisa’s world instead of reading about Ash.

It wasn’t a book without its problems but I’m undoubtedly far outside the target market. It’s a book that I’m glad was written, it’s a book that I’m glad is out there, on my supermarket shelves, for anyone to buy, instead of needed to be hunted down on the internet. Every single other decent GLBTQ in the fantasy genre I’ve read I’ve had to buy on the internet.

I want to see more books like Ash. I want to see more good books that appeal to mainstream audiences with GLBTQ characters. I want them sitting on the bookshelves of the stores not in a little niche corner but right next to all the other books.

I am looking forward to Malinda Lo’s next book, Huntress, which seems to be taking the best elements of Ash and weaving them into a novel of their own. Even if it wasn’t I’d buy it because I love that cover.

20 thoughts on ““Ash” by Malinda Lo

    • It wasn’t just sold in a store. In the bookshop it had a spot on the table as well as a cover-out spot on the shelves as opposed to just having its spine on view. The UK edition does have a lovely shiny cover which online pictures don’t convey, so it’s eye-catching, especially surrounded with all the black covers that seem to be the fate of most young adult books.

      The supermarket seriously doesn’t really sell books. Well it sells them in so much as people buy the ones that are on the shelves but the selection is so limited. It has Twilight, Twilight2 and Almost-Twilight and and a bunch of celebrity biographies. It has big names, proven sellers. The books that are sold are undoubtedly picked by head office for all the stores nation-wide (and this is one of the largest supermarket chains in the UK.) I’ll bet there aren’t even 20 authors in the teenage section. Ash was once more prominently displayed. It wasn’t hidden on a bottom shelf behind the Justin Bieber biographies, it was eye-level and cover out saying ‘please buy me I have a lovely shiny cover’.

      I mean really. Who’d have thought it? Lesbian Cinderella sitting next to all the other girls on the shelves.

  1. On a more serious front, I think that YA fiction is where a lot of the progressive stuff is happening with literature these days. I don’t think it’s because YA publishers are particularly brave, but the fact that it’s “for the kids” seems to act like a way of giving permission to be more inclusive.

    • I agree. And based on my own research for my YA novel (with the gay protagonist) and discussions with published YA authors, it seems that there is a lot more vocal support for LGBTQs in YA literature such as the Young Adult Library Services Association.

        • I’m flailing around in the dark here as I don’t know the US/UK demographics that well, but could it be that parents/educators trust the “YA” label to mean that the material is ipso facto “safe” and are less likely to vet them? I’m guessing most adults dismiss YA fiction as not worth reading and batshit extremists in particular probably don’t even glance at the YA shelf; cases that get their attention have to be a huge media phenomenon, like HP (re: OMG SATANIST DARK MAGIC!1!!).

        • http://www.yabookscentral.com had a GLBT month back in 2007 where they interviewed a number of authors about YA GLBT books. I can’t seem to find the landing page but doing a search for GLBT on the site will bring up a whole pile of interviews. It’s old though. We’re 3 years on. I wish they had figures to back up the assumptions behind some of their questions.

          There’s a few interesting comments in the various interviews.

          I’d be interested as well in finding out if there’s any basis for the idea that it’s more acceptable in YA literature than other media. It was the reverse when I was a teen but that might have been thanks to Section 28.

          I think this is one I’m not willing to hazard a guess on without some cold hard facts.

          • Could it be linked to the idea that it’s OK to be gay as long as you don’t do gay?

            You’re not going to find many graphic sex scenes in YA novels, although Twilight has something that would seem straight out of hentai.

  2. Hmm. Usually adults are extremely uptight about YA and religiously police it. So ‘refreshing’ doesn’t even begin to say the half of it.

    Anyway, I *have* to go find this book.

  3. I’m reading “Ash” now, and it’s great. Not only is the main character queer, but they interlace queer relationships throughout the novel without making it a big deal. They just sort of say, “Two women ran off together giggling and kissing” (or something like that).

  4. Just picked up a copy at the library — plus, there’s a historical romance I’ve been meaning to read whose secondary plot is a lesbian romance. It should make for an interesting contrast, to say the least.

  5. BTW, if you liked “Ash,” Lo’s “Huntress” came out recently. Hardback runs about $18 US. Gonna read it this week or next.

  6. Huh, I’m reading Ash now and find the writing style a bit… off-putting. Too simple and too, well, ham-fisted I guess. I’ll keep at it for a while, though.

    • I didn’t like the writing style either. I wanted to love the book far more than I actually did. I’m hoping that it was because it was a first book and the sequel will be better.

      • Yep, in the end that’s my reaction: wishing I could like it a lot more. Still, what is there isn’t bad at all and I did find much in it to enjoy. I’m on the first few pages of the prequel Huntress, and it looks to be quite an improvement.

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