This is my second time reading Ash, Malinda Lo’s lyrical lesbian Cinderella YA romance. The first time I found our heroine a little bit too reactive for my tastes, though I liked the book’s style and setting a great deal. I also liked the presence of queer relationships in a fairy-tale context, and thought it was a step forward for LGBTQ representation in young adult fiction. Upon the re-read, I started to qualify and modify this second conclusion. It now seems to me that the specter of compulsory heterosexuality is very present in Ash, and even helps drive the mechanics of the plot.
The main action is interspersed with fairy stories, many of which feature some element of romance. Some of these romances involve two women, such as the sweetly charming story of Niamh and the Fairy Queen. Throughout the book, women are shown falling in love with one another, sneaking away from dances with one another, all the usual motions of romance. But we never see two men together—and we never see two women getting married or raising children. We have queer relationships, but no queer families.
In fact, marriage in Ash is very classically heteronormative, particularly among the upper classes on whose borders our heroine exists. Her stepsister Ana is “well ready to find a husband” (Kindle location 970); her fellow maid Gwen “can’t wait to find a husband” (1191); and the kingdom is all a-twitter about Prince Aidan choosing “a bride … a lady worthy of becoming his wife” (1957). As for the prince’s thoughts on his upcoming nuptials, Ash “did not think he seemed particularly thrilled by his parents’ announcement” (1963). Just as in the default medieval fantasy-Europe, marriage is for legitimizing children, for inheriting power, and for merging property.
And in this world, despite all the lesbian love, ladies cannot earn their own living, as stepsister Clara makes clear: “I am a gentlewoman’s daughter. I have no trade” (Kindle location 2120). Which means upper-class manners are heavily gendered in a way readers are likely recognize from their own lives:
“One must be properly respectful and yet give a hint of playfulness,” Lady Isobel instructed … “One cannot diminish the importance of this — you must always show that you admire his wealth and stature, but at the same time you must not be in too much awe of it.”
“Why not? Clara asked. “Do men not enjoy it when a woman is in awe of them?”
“Of course they do,” Ana put in, “but you must avoid appearing as though you are interested only in his wealth.” (Kindle location 2110)
Ambitious Ana is angling for the prince, and Clara merely hopes to be comfortably well-off, but Ash explicitly rejects marriage as a means of self-support. She argues with Clara and says that such an arrangement would “be false” (2127), emphasis original, and she “deliberately” devours an egg on a night when girls who fast are promised dreams of their future husband (1265).
It seems fairly obvious in this context that Sidhean the fairy represents Ash’s putative husband. He is aloof and cruel yet protective in the manner of alpha heroes from time immemorial: he jealously rescues her from an interested female fairy (1333) and his gifts are magically binding and symbolically loaded — a fur cloak, a medallion, and a moonstone ring. Each gift is a debt: along with the material gifts, he grants Ash’s wishes and helps her attend the Royal Hunt and the subsequent masquerade, Ash‘s stand-ins for the single ball of the original tale. So again, heterosexual relationships are transactional and commodified. SIdhean’s ability to grant Ash’s wishes places him in the fairy godmother role, but unlike the original story it is made abundantly clear that his gifts come with price tags attached.
The hunters, including Ash’s love interest Kaisa, exist somewhat outside this patriarchal framework: “hunts had always been led by women.”
When she saw the hunters in the village, Ash was transfixed by the sight of them. The women, especially, with their casual camaraderie and easy grace, seemed like entirely different creatures than her stepmother and stepsisters. (493)
As the King’s Huntress, Kaisa can earn wages. She is a member of the royal household in a way that is more than mere servitude: she has a certain independence, and she is invited to high-class events like the masquerade, which a true servant would never be permitted to attend as a guest. Her romance with Ash is secret and sweet and happens in the forest and in back hallways of the palace — on the fringes of the world of straight marriage and patriarchal monarchy. In one of these stolen moments, we learn Ash has internalized the rules of straight romance:
“I am no one — a servant in a poor household. What could I give you?”
Kaisa seemed taken aback. “You don’t need to give me anything,” she said. “I offer because I care for you.” (2412)
At this point, Ash is still in debt to Sidhean, still bound to him by gifts and promises and the full weight of his love and expectation. There appears to be no way for Ash to be with Kaisa; she is owned by someone else, not free to make her own choices. Later, once she realizes the depths of her love for Kaisa (and vice versa), she has a deeper realization:
The knowledge of love had changed her. It focused what had once been a blur; it turned her world around and presented her with a new landscape. Now, she would do anything to bring Kaisa happiness. And if the knowledge of love could change her, would it not also change Sidhean? (2795)
The world of transactional (straight) romance is mutable, escapable: true love has a power that mere marriage can only envy, even as the fairies envy mortals and copy the forms but not the substance of their customs:
As the people swayed and stamped and sung their way around the bonfire, Ash knew that this was what the fairies were always hunting for: a circle of joy, hot and brilliant, the scent of love in the deepest winter. But all they could do was create a pale, crystalline imitation, perfect and cold. (2720)
Ash goes to Sidhean and does something that surprised and puzzled me on my first read: she asks him to let her free, in return for one night together. I’d been thinking of the fairy as something of a villain, or at least an antagonist: that Ash could simply ask to be released and get it seemed to cheapen the climax of the novel. It’s that easy? I wondered. Just like that?
Well, yes, just like that — because Ash’s request preserves for Sidhean the form of the transactional, heterosexual marriage, an exchange rather than a true gift. There is a risk: “One night in my world is not the same as one night in yours,” he tells her (2812). But Ash has the advantage of knowing that the fairy world is not quite real — she has had this thought many times over the course of the book — and she is willing to take a chance. And indeed, upon waking, only one mortal night has passed (though there’s an argument to be made that something like a lifetime has passed in the fairy realm). Ash is able to accept Kaisa’s love and to offer her own, freed now from the bonds of debt.
At the same time, this freedom from the larger patriarchal/transactional system appears to come at a price. Lesbian relationships aren’t at all visible in the larger world of Ash, as straight relationships are. We only see two women living happily ever after together in the tales of fairies and heroes, tales that take place in an implied (and very romanticized) past. The choice between the fairy husband and the huntress lover is a lose-lose, given this structure. Queer love can subvert the larger social system; it cannot participate in it.
Malinda Lo has talked quite a bit about race in fantasy and race and sexuality in character dialogue. The prequel Huntress makes it more explicit than the text in Ash, but Ms. Lo does say that she pictured both Ash and Kaisa as having Asian features. At the end of last year she also did a post full of YA books featuring LGBT characters of color.
Recently I discovered the existence of The Lesbrary, which is a fantastic name for a website and a bountiful source of recommendations and reviews of lesbian writing in just about every genre.
Lo, Malinda. Ash. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co. 2009. Ebook.