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Ash
Book
2009
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Trade Reviews

  New York Times Review

DAWN is breaking on the Y.A. aisle of the bookstore, and the dew is suspiciously glittery. Look quickly and you may catch the hoofprint of a magical steed and the flutter of a wing. A recent crop of fairy-themed novels and reworked fairy tales is proving the surprising resilience of an age-old genre. These aren't gift-shop fairies. They're capricious, twilight creatures that travel between the fairy realm and our own, meddling in human lives. In Cyn Balog's "Fairy Tale," a clairvoyant high school girl discovers that her perfect boyfriend is actually a changeling - a fairy child raised by unsuspecting humans. Malinda Lo's somber and lovely "Ash" is a lesbian retelling of "Cinderella." Lisa Mantchev's theatrical fantasy "Eyes Like Stars" pits a plucky orphan, Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, and her fairy attendants against the wiles of Ariel and a stuffy stage manager. In Aprilynne Pike's "Wings," the new girl at school is mortified to realize she's sprouting a set of perfumed flower-wings. (Through some pact with the goblin lord, Pike scored a cover blurb from Stephenie Meyer, author of "Twilight.") Despite its same-sex content, "Ash" may be the most conventional of these new novels. It features a beautiful orphan - Ash, short for Aisling, and a perfect play on the name "Cinderella" - a cruel, social-climbing stepmother and two sneering stepsisters. Lo gives us a vaguely medieval setting, royal hunts, grand balls and an unquestioned class hierarchy. Not until the introduction of Kaisa, the king's gorgeous young huntress, do we get a spin on tradition. From her first glimpse of Kaisa in the magical Wood, Ash feels pulled between two worlds - the fairy realm, where a haughty prince named Sidhean waits for permission to possess her, and the charmed hours she spends with Kaisa, learning to ride and track. Neither is the "real" world of her stepmother, Lady Isobel, who has fired the other servants so that Ash can work off her dead father's debts. How can Ash decide between Kaisa, in her riding leathers, and the austere, almost irresistible Sidhean? On seeing him in the Wood, Ash feels "as though drawn on threads pulled taut by his hands." This fateful choice between an earthly and a fairy lover is the underlying theme in each of these novels, even the chipper "Eyes Like Stars," in which the heroine shuttles between Ariel, a seducer in spirit form, and Nate, her beefy protector. (Finding Beatrice without her anti-glamour charm, Ariel pulls her close: "The butterflies drifted out of his hair as he leaned over her. They fluttered through Bertie's already swimming head, brushed over something dark and sleeping, and roused it from slumber." The heroine of "Wings," Laurel, must decide between David, her science study partner and aspiring heartthrob, and Tamani, a dreamy fairy sentry who leaves her petals limp. In another genre, these girls would be skipping school to smoke and make out with hoodlums. Beyond each heroine's attraction to bad boys and forbidden pleasures - the intoxicating fruit sold at the goblin market - are questions of self-definition. What kind of woman will Beatrice become? What about Morgan, the heroine of Balog's "Fairy Tale," who's convinced that her longtime boyfriend, Cam, is the love of her life until she grows close to sweet, curiously attractive Pip, the human boy the fairies snatched from the cradle when they substituted the fairy Cam? When Pip smiles at her, she finds herself "breathless, shivering, wondering what it would be like if he really did touch me like he did in my dream. And then I think of Cam and want to stab myself with my pen." It's not just the dark lovers that allure and threaten. Passion itself feels alien at this age, the point at which choices - the dangerous lover who enchants versus the dependable boy next door - can have lasting consequences. The fairy-tale theme of transformation is a natural for young adult fiction: an allegory of sexual coming-of-age. Laurel, in "Wings," has the worst time with this because she discovers she's not only a fairy but a plant. (No high school girl wants to be perceived as different, let alone jump from the Animal to the Vegetable category in Twenty Questions.) Laurel brings her insecurities to Tamani, who explains why she has never developed like a normal girl. In fairy reproduction, the male produces pollen on his hands then reaches inside the female's blossom to pollinate her. "'Doesn't sound very romantic,'" Laurel responds. "There's nothing romantic about it at all,' Tamani replied, a confident smile spreading across his face. 'That's what sex is for.'" THE steamiest exploration of these tensions must be in Melissa Marr's "Fragile Eternity," the third book in her popular "Tales of Faerie" series - not to be confused with Holly Black's modern fairy tales, the young adult series she began while collaborating with Tony DiTerlizzi on "The Spiderwick Chronicles." (Black's series and Neil Gaiman's "Stardust," from 1999, are considered to have kick-started the fairy trend in young adult fantasy; you can get a nice sampler of the style in Marietta Publishing's two-volume anthology, "Bad-Ass Faeries.") Marr's fantasy world is complex and involving. Her main character, Aislinn - like Aisling in "Ash," an adaptation of the Gaelic word "aisling," which means "dream" or "vision" - has been chosen as queen by Keenan, the "Summer King." Now she, too, is a fairy and immortal. Her moods can change the weather. Keenan longs for his lover, Donia, but lusts for Aislinn, who returns the favor despite her devotion to her human boyfriend, Seth. They process their emotions relentlessly, as if some evil sprite cast a therapy spell over both couples. Aislinn battles her feelings for Keenan until a stomach injury forces her to submit to his magical healing touch: "She didn't pull his hand away, didn't let go of his wrist. Her skin was alive with sunlight. His sunlight. Our sunlight. A sigh slipped from between her lips as a pulse of sunlight stronger than all the rest combined slid from his palm to her skin. Her eyes fluttered closed as wave after wave of pleasure rolled through her body." Take that, "Twilight" readers. Another much-admired writer in the fairy genre is Laini Taylor, whose fantasy collection "Lips Touch" is a nominee this year for a National Book Award for Young People's Literature. But the books in her beautifully written "Dreamdark" series are for a younger authence, and unlike the other fairy-themed novels discussed here, they don't cross human and otherworldly realms but are rooted in a self-contained fantasy world, like Tolkien's Middle-earth. There's no tortured adolescent sexuality, just adventure, flying carpets, hideous monsters and stolen magic. Hardly a fairy tale at all. Regina Marler is the author of a literary history, "Bloomsbury Pie." She is working on a novel.

  Booklist Review

In this groundbreaking, gender-mixing retelling, it's another woman at court, not the prince, who captures Cinderella's heart. After she loses both her parents, Aisling, or Ash, becomes a beleaguered servant to her cruel stepmother and husband-hunting stepsisters, but an enchantment allows her to attend a ball, where the prince finds her irresistible. Here, though, is where Lo's debut diverges from the original tale's familiar plot points. The magical godmother in this story is actually an ethereal male, Sidhean, whose fairy kingdom lies hidden in the vibrant, wild forest that Ash loves. Among the trees, she also meets Kaisa, the king's huntress, with whom she feels an overwhelming, real-world pull, and it's Kaisa, not the prince, who inspires Ash to make a perilous, soul-threatening pact with Sidhean and attend the court balls in enchanted disguise. Part heart-pounding lesbian romance and part universal coming-of-age story, Lo's powerful tale is richly embroidered with folklore and glittering fairy magic that will draw fans of Sharon Shinn's earthy, herb-laced fantasies.--Engberg, Gillian Copyright 2009 Booklist

  Kirkus Review

An unexpected reimagining of the Cinderella tale, exquisite and pristine, unfolding deliberately. AislingAshknows the fairy stories and lore told her by her now-dead mother, but she does not know if she believes them. When her father dies and her stepmother and stepsisters move her away from the Wood to the City, she finds herself returning to her mother's grave, where she meets the fairy Sidhean. Ash barely notes her harsh treatment at the hands of her stepfamily, as she both longs for and fears her glimpses of Sidhean. He longs for her, too, in ways she is slow to understand. Ash also is slow to see Kaisa, the King's Huntress, as the source of her own desire. When she does, Ash turns to Sidhean to make it possible for her to spend time with Kaisa, despite the price Ash knows she will have to pay. Ash and Kaisa's dance at the King's Ball is a wild and gorgeous moment, no less so than the night Ash must spend in Sidhean's Wood. Beautiful language magically wrought; beautiful storytelling magically told. (Fantasy. 12 up) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Summary
The haunting, romantic lesbian retelling of Cinderella and modern queer classic by award-winning author Malinda Lo--now with an introduction by Holly Black, a letter from the author, a Q&A, and more!<br> <br> In the wake of her father's death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.<br> <br> The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Their friendship, as delicate as a new bloom, reawakens Ash's capacity for love--and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.<br> <br> Entrancing and empowering,Ash beautifully unfolds the connections between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.
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