Malinda Lo’s fantasy novel Ash had been on my reading list for a long, long time. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I picked it up. I knew it was a retelling of Cinderella. I knew, from the review where I’d first heard about it, that it was set in a world where same-sex relationships were as accepted and normalised as those between people of different genders. As the author states in an interview on John Scalzi’s blog:
“I had absolutely no desire to write a book full of medieval social customs. So I decided that in Ash’s world, homosexuality is entirely normal. People are more likely to be heterosexual, but nobody blinks when they see a same-sex couple. It is a natural and legitimate state of being.”
I didn’t realise, when I started reading, that Ash herself would fall in love with a woman, the King’s Huntress – but as Lo says, the fact that she does, in this particular world, means that “the big idea behind [the book] isn’t that Cinderella is a lesbian. The big idea is this: Nobody in the book cares that she’s a lesbian.”
A big idea, but such a simple one. As Lo also notes in her interview, “if you’ve read any mainstream fantasy, most of the worlds are medieval in feel, including social mores.” This trend is, at best, unimaginative – really, you’d rather crib from the 14th century than invent your own world? – and at worst, used to justify a lot of exclusion, as I’ve noted before.
The romantic fairytale aspect of Ash illustrates one of the best things about the fantasy genre – that, as writers, we don’t have to include the social prejudices that make ‘realistic’ novels…well, realistic. Human interactions still need to be believable (as they are in Ash). Heroes and heroines still need to face conflict and struggle (as Ash does, repeatedly). But the author can make a choice about the nature of these struggles, these conflicts – and that choice doesn’t need to be “the same as those of the real world”. If you’re writing a novel set during the Hundred Years’ War, then yes, you have to include 14th and 15th century attitudes towards women, people of colour, gay and disabled people…but if you’re writing about The War of the Mighty Elemental Unicorn-Folk Versus the Grumpy Yetis, then guess what? You don’t. You don’t even have to include the biases and bigotries of 21st century society – and if you do, then that’s not an inevitability, but your personal choice.
Lo’s choice to build a society that didn’t simply echo real-world prejudices was one of the things I loved about Ash, but it certainly wasn’t the only thing. The lyrical style of storytelling took me a while to get into; it was more like reading one of my old books of fairytales than a modern YA novel. But about a third of the way through, because I am just that quick on the uptake, it hit me – it was like reading one of my old books of fairytales, and that was exactly the point. As a little kid who’d turn out to be straight, I’d seen myself in those old stories – but kids who would turn out to be gay, lesbian, bi or pansexual may well not have done. And, as Malinda Lo points out, “Gay people need fairy tales, too.” And the beautiful, winding style of writing made me feel not as if I was reading, or watching the action as it unfolded, but more like I was sitting in one of the halls described in the book, hearing the story told to me. Considering all the storytelling scenes in the novel, I’m fairly sure that was intentional.
Ash hit all the right buttons for me – a great story, beautifully told, with a commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Ash is a self-rescuing heroine who deals with bereavement, loneliness and abuse in a way that’s believable and relatable, who thinks her way out of the dangers that surround her, and who shows bravery in all kinds of situations (facing down the fairy folk is all well and good, but this introvert cheered loudest for Ash when she asked Kasia to dance despite an entire roomful of people staring at her). I’d recommend it to anyone who loves retellings of fairytales, and particularly to younger readers – and I can’t wait to read more of Malinda Lo’s work in future.