Ash, Fairytales, and the Reappropriation of Beloved Characters

Posted: February 4, 2013 in Uncategorized
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I recently finished reading Ash by Madlina Lo. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, considering it had many elements I usually find grating in novels: A fairy tale retelling (usually poorly done), dreamy atmospheric descriptions (usually too dreamy and uninteresting), a mysterious fairy world (usually nebulous and difficult to picture).

As it was, none of these elements put me off from the book, and I enjoyed Lo’s writing and the character of Ash. I finished it all in nearly one sitting and was sad enough to see it done that I’ll be picking up the prequel Huntress. It was more of a book that invited you to wallow in the atmosphere than one that clipped along with action, and I enjoyed it on that level. Some of Lo’s descriptions were striking (“The quiet afternoon opened up between them like a woman stretching her limbs”), and while there were many descriptions of walking into the woods, I wasn’t overly bored with them.

I did have a couple of complaints with the novel. The romance with the huntress did feel a little anemic, but that may have been the point. Considered in contrast with the Disney-fied or Maguire-fied retellings, original fairytales romances are very anemic. They were not about the characters or their relationships as much as they were about The Point. In fact, when the first made up fairytale in Ash’s world regarding the farmer Thom appeared, I stopped and thought, “Wait, do they tend to name characters in fairytales?” Rumpelstiltskin, naturally, is Christened; as are Hansel, Gretel, Rapunzel, and a handful of others (particularly in the Grimms tales), but they are in the minority. In fact, one of the reasons I find it hard to enjoy Grimms or Christian Anderson stories is due to their faceless nature. Names generally related to their function in the story or to some distinguishing feature (Goose Girl, Tom Thumb, The Little Mermaid, The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Ella in the Cinders, and so on).

The characters in Lo’s fairytales are each given a proper name, distancing them from their brethren in folklore, but grounding them in this particular world.

My other detraction is that I found the ending a little too easy. Ash didn’t have to work to settle her debt (though admittedly she did more than her predecessor who lost a shoe and allowed it to be refitted to her foot.)

I had another, larger issue that came up post-reading that started me thinking, however. I was skimming through reviews on Goodreads and I instantly noticed a surprisingly high number of them saying “But Cinderella isn’t a lesbian!”

This is hardly a new debate, and one that will remained unsolved because it deals with the way readers respond to a story and a character and how they connect to both on a personal level. Having someone come in and change things in a story dear to you feels like a violation.

What Lo did with the story of Cinderella is hardly new, and hardly the first time someone has complained about reimagining a character. In Elementary, Dr. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame was turned into a Chinese-American woman (the woman part seems to be what threw people the most.) Starbuck also underwent a sex change in Battlestar Galactica. Daniel Craig’s casting led to a flurry of disapproval over the blond Bond. The world of fairytales has repeatedly been plundered for ideas to be updated and morphed into something new for audiences.

At the same time, the appeal of a story is its ability to connect to us because of our humanity, and the values we hold dear as people. Regardless of culture, race, orientation, or gender, the constant qualities we value remain the same. This is why we love stories: We relate to them so intensely it seems unthinkable they can be anything other than how we imagine. At the same, we relate to them so intensely we desire to recast them in images of ourselves. Cinderella can be a lesbian and rise above her station. Cinderella can get the girl, or the guy, because that is not the precise point. The Point is that Cinderella takes a journey we all take in some form or another.

Recommendation?: Yes, for lovers of fairytales or LGBT books.

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