Book Vs. Book: Ash and Ella Enchanted

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.

Today's contenders:

The hardback cover for Ash by Malinda Lo

Ash by Malinda Lo vs. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.

The cover for one paperback edition of 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.

Book Vs. Book: Card and Pratchett

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.

Welcome to the first installment of Book Vs. Book! Let's get down to business.

The cover image from Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game

Enders Game by Orson Scott Card


Only You Can Save Mankind by Terry Pratchett

The cover from Terry Pratchett's book Only You Can Save Mankind

Full disclosure: I read both books a while ago, and memory might be a little hazy.

Further disclosure: I am a diehard Pratchett fan, and Orson Scott Card's books have become a little tainted for me by some of his politics in the past decade or so. So if the question were Which book do you like more, Olivia? the answer would not require a thoughtful blog post.

But the question here is something else: If your main character has a life-changing revelation that will alter the reader's perception of the entire story, where in the plot do you put that revelation?

Both books involve a boy playing an alien-slaughtering video game that turns out to be real. Which means all those video-game deaths are real deaths. Ender's Game was published in 1985, and Only You came out in 1992, but the question of how video game violence intersects with real-life violence is evergreen. It's not clear that violent games cause violent acts, as many have claimed—but it's also not clear that violent games and violent acts exist in totally separate ethical realms, either.

This revelation—that the fictional deaths each boy has caused are in fact the death of real alien beings—comes at different points in each story.

With Ender's Game, the revelation is held back until the climactic point of the story's arc. It is a twist ending, a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-them surprise. It's been some years since I read the book, but I remember thinking: What on earth does he do now? And Orson Scott Card spends the rest of a lengthy series exploring precisely that. In fact, the original story was a novelette, meant to establish the character of Ender as the protagonist of Speaker for the Dead (at least, according to Wikipedia, so feel free to rebut my ignorance in the comments). So this first book is really a set-up to an exploration of the question, rather than an exploration itself.

Meanwhile, in Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny Maxwell learns that he's been killing real—or mostly real—beings about halfway through the book, and the second half is him trying to fix what he's done wrong. The tone of this book is quite different—Pratchett is funny even when dealing with weighty issues, where Card is all about heavy moral angst—but what really matters is that the realization comes halfway through. It's the obstacle, rather than the reveal.

The trouble with saving the question for the reveal is that it makes false all the things that seemed important before, and not in a way that feels satisfying. For instance, in Secret Window, or Identity, or Shutter Island, or even Inception (possibly), the twist at the end lets the audience know they've been mistaken the whole time. There can be a pleasure in this—The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense both use the twist ending rather beautifully, to solve a mystery and to help a child move forward, respectively—but the pleasure comes because the twist responds to the stakes we've been working with the entire time. In Ender's Game, the stakes are suddenly changed, and just as suddenly the book is over. The reader has spent the entire reading experience caring about conflicts that ultimately do not matter. This is why the twist ending can feel like cruelty.

Ultimately, I want stories to explore questions, rather than simply pose them. I want to come to the end of a book and feel as though I've gained something, not lost something. If the stakes change, I want the characters to work through what that change means.

In short, I want answers. Even answers I disagree with—even multiple answers. But there must be something offered to the reader, in gratitude for their work in bringing the story to life.

Please feel free to agree, disagree, and offer evidence in the comments below. If you have a suggestion for a future installment of Book Vs. Book, please let me know as well.