We here at Olivia Waite earned our masters degree in Comparative Literature, and old habits die hard. The Book Vs. Book series will compare one book to another book similar in plot or theme or based on the same material. We will not care (much) about arguing which book is better, but we will care a great deal about what the books' differences mean for the story experience. It goes without saying that Here There Be Spoilers.
Ash by Malinda Lo vs. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
Let's talk Cinderella stories. In an essay you should read if you haven't already, Jennifer Crusie breaks down the essence of Cinderella, both the well-known Grimms' version and a modern Harlequin romance based on the tale. She finds that one of the hallmarks of the original tale is the heroine's passivity:
In the Grimm’s story, Cinderella feels a lack of love and status; she follows her mother’s interdiction and is good; she quests (?) by asking others for help, and she is rewarded with the love of the prince and marriage. The tale punishes active women (the stepsisters who move heaven and earth and even chop off body parts to snag the prince) and rewards the passive (Cinderella, who depends on other to save her, runs away from confrontation, and sits waiting to be rescued). The Grimm’s culture was obviously sending women the message/theme: “Be good and passive and you will be rewarded.”
But if the Grimm’s culture rewards passivity in females, [the] modern audience does not.
A modern reader, even one who has been raised with these stories, often finds them at odds with many other messages sent by the culture: be passive and good, but follow your dreams; carpe diem, but the best things come to those who wait; etc etc etc.
Although Steven Swan Jones has argued that the resonance of a tale comes from the text interpreting “the larger drama of life,” in fairy tales that larger drama is often of male life, not female, and this has led many women to feel both drawn to the original tales and uncomfortable with them. … One woman reported to Stone that “I remember a feeling of being left out in the fairy tale stories. Whatever the story was about, it wasn’t about me. But this feeling didn’t make me not interested in them. I knew there was something I was supposed to do or be to fit in there, but I couldn’t do it, and it bothered me” (qtd. in Stone 133).
These two aspects—passivity/activity and reader identification—are vital to any comparison of Ash and Ella Enchanted. Let's start with the question of our heroine's passivity.
In Ash, which I only discovered recently and mostly enjoyed, our heroine only does about three things under her own steam during the course of the book. She is isolated, and diffident, and tends to feel numb with grief, which is affecting at first but starts to get tedious after a while. She may have been promised and is certainly attracted to an elf who was an acquaintance of her late mother's, but she's also very drawn to the King's Huntress, a completely awesome character named Kaisa who teaches her to ride and track. (There is a prince floating around, but he's not who the story is interested in.)
In order to get proper gear and a proper mount for the King's Hunt—our ball equivalent—Ash promises herself to the hot but scary elf, only to realize that of course she's really in love with Kaisa. How to get out of this magically binding promise? She asks the elf to let her go after a single night, because if he loves her he'll want her to be happy. And he does. And this is the solution to our whole problem. Love is a get out of Elfland jail free card.
It was a little unsatisfying to this particular reader—though I admit, part of that could be because I'd read Ella Enchanted before, and this book really ups the bar on Cinderella interpretations.
In Ella, our heroine is under a curse: she has to obey any direct order she is given, whether it's a command to pass the butter at dinner or a demand that she slit her own throat. Any resistance becomes physically uncomfortable and even dangerous to her life. Naturally, she finds all this infuriating, and much of the book is spent demonstrating how she can subvert orders that are broad or unspecific—when told to come closer, she takes a single step forward, for instance, or when told to pick up a pair of her stepsister's shoes, she picks them up and throws them out the window into a slop bucket. The forced obedience makes her follow the lines of the story (poverty, servitude, helplessness, disguise) without wholly taking away her agency as a character. In a way, she's struggling against an enforced passivity in the same way as readers of the Grimms' original story.
She meets her prince, they fall in love, he asks her to marry him—and Ella has a horrible realization: because of the curse, she could put her prince and her kingdom in danger. She is a weapon to be used against the people she loves. And so she refuses, even though the prince himself (who doesn't know of the curse) is commanding her to say yes (though he doesn't know it's a command rather than persuasion). And she refuses again, when her stepmother and stepsisters (who do know of the curse) command her to accept, because they want to use her as a means of increasing their own wealth and status. And the physical effects of disobedience become worse and worse, until she's shaking herself to pieces—and then deep inside herself, she finds an oasis of strength, and knows she's doing the right thing in refusing the marriage to save the prince she dearly loves. So she refuses a third time—and the curse is broken.
This is love as a force to be reckoned with, not a weakness to be exploited.
But if Ella Enchanted is more successful in dealing with the passivity from the original story, it is still firmly rooted in heteronormativity. Women and men get married to each other, and never is anything else suggested.
In Ash, on the other hand, queer relationships are everywhere, built right into the recognizable fairy-tale world. Characters tell fairy stories where women fall in love with women; some girls dance with girls and some men with men at a Yule ball, and it's no big earth-shaking deal. Ash herself is attracted to both an elf man and a human woman, and for all her angst she spends not one instant of time wondering which of them she's supposed to be "really" in love with on account of their gender.
There is an opportunity that Ash provides for queer youth and teenagers to see themselves reflected in its pages; it is a less exclusive mirror than the original Cinderella—where every woman wants the prince, and is competing to get him.
And if there were a way to squish these two books together into one giant Super-Cinderella of Awesome, I totally would.