Review written by Jonathan Lavallee
Recently in YA/MG fiction there’s been a lot of retelling of classic fairy stories. I think this is great and wonderful because those kinds of stories have a lot of life in them. Especially when you take them and transcend them beyond the original story. I had just finished reading Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress so I was primed to see how Ash would do something similar and make me appreciate how this book transformed the story of Cinderella.
I will admit, at first I was kind of disappointed with it. The book spends a third of the book setting up the Cinderella story. Not that it’s bad, the writing is beautiful and you get a good feel for Aisling (aka Ash) and what’s going on with her. The stepmother is cruel but very driven, and the stepsisters fit in with the nastier one and the friendlier one. Then I realized that I was disappointed because I, as an adult, had read a whole host of these retellings. But if your tween hasn’t read as many, then the story will bring up a lot of emotions because Malinda Lo does a great job at making you have sympathy for the characters. Ash isn’t always likeable—Clara challenges her on quite a few of her assumptions—but she’s always sympathetic.
Where the stories deviates from the original, and beautifully so, is in the romantic relationship department. It does so in two very distinct and unexpected ways. The first is that there is a romantic relationship between Ash and her “fairy godmother”—a faery from the dark wood named Sidhean. The relationship between fairies and humans isn’t seen as a comfortable or positive one, and in the beginning of the story Ash is actively encouraged to avoid anything to do with the wood. However, she’s drawn to it and to Sidhean, just as he is drawn to her. This is less about love, and more about compulsion and desperation. The second way that the story deviates is that she doesn’t fall in love with the prince. Instead she falls for the Huntress, a woman who leads the royal hunt. Ash and Kaisa meet before the ball, and build up a relationship over time. There isn’t any love at first sight kind of moment and instead the story is about overcoming hardship to be in a relationship.
Your older tween will devour this book, especially if they haven’t been exposed to too many retellings of Cinderella. Regardless, the beautiful prose will keep them entranced. The woods feel spooky when you read about them, the ball feels grand and imposing. The language flows well, probably because there isn’t a lot of dialogue in the book. Ash spends most of her time by herself, and the few moments when there are other people around she doesn’t talk much, even when she likes them.
Younger tweens might be put off by the romance angle, and it very much is a romance story. There isn’t particularly a lot of action, and most of it involves getting into places where Ash shouldn’t be, finding someone, and then escaping from those places. If your tween cares about characters and being clever, then they’ll enjoy this book a lot.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
It’s a Cinderella story, so a certain amount of this is to be expected. It’s not too horrible—she gets beaten once after Ash’s step-family discovers her in her finery after the ball. Most of the things she owns are sold, and Ash gets locked in a cupboard a few times. The older sister and the stepmother are constantly berating Ash, and trying to punish her for any slight even if they don’t quite understand that her being left behind is something she wishes for.
There is an interesting side note: Ash constantly puts down the youngest sister’s desire to get married, as if it’s something horrible and not wanted, and she has to be constantly reminded that what Ash wants isn’t what everyone wants.
The relationship between Sidhean and Ash isn’t a good one, and the story makes that kind of gray. She feels safe with Sidhean, and she knows that he can protect her from things that harm her, but the relationship itself is flawed. Sidhean is there because Ash’s mother cast a curse on him that would compel him to love another, and that emotion is dark, possessive, and ultimately unwanted. The Fae mentions that he wishes he weren’t compelled so, and thankfully Ash comes up with a plan that helps both of them get what they want.
What makes the relationship difficult is that Ash does find protection in the dysfunctional relationship because it’s less dysfunctional than the relationship with her stepfamily. Reading about Ash feeling good about facing danger to find Sidhean should be something you talk about with your tween.
Same Sex Relationships
The good relationship in the book is the same sex relationship between Ash and Kaisa. Ash starts out with an uncertain attraction, though Kaisa’s attraction is present but not very explicit in the text. They then take the time to build the relationship up, and there comes a moment when Ash knows that she wants to be with Kaisa. This is a great talking point because Ash doesn’t start out interested in the prince and then realizing that she doesn’t want him, instead she goes from not wanting to be in any relationship to discovering her desire.
This ends up being another point of contention between Sidhean and Ash. Sidhean is aware of Ash’s desire long before she can articulate it. He holds it bitterly, in part because of his compulsion but in part because of the freedom that Ash has to feel how she wants.
This is a great retelling of the Cinderella story, with a twist that isn’t too jarring. It is at heart a tale of romance, and the romance is still there but it isn’t about falling in love at first sight. Instead it’s about someone building a relationship regardless of what’s going on around them. It’s a story that starts to pick up when it moves beyond the standard Cinderella tale and comes into its own. It’s a good choice for your middle to older tween, maybe 11 and up.