Ash, by Malinda Lo
Shortly after twelve-year-old Aisling's mother dies, her father heads off to the Royal City for the summer. When he returns a few months later, he brings his new wife—Lady Isobel Quinn—and her daughters.
Although Ash doesn't develop much of a rapport with her new stepmother and stepsisters, she supposes that that will come in time. In the meantime, she continues grieving, reading and re-reading the fairy stories that her mother so adored, and sometimes—almost compulsively—searching the nearby forest for the dangerous fairies described in the book.
Then, her father falls ill and dies. Once he's gone, Ash's stepmother drops all pretense of kindness, forcing Ash into unpaid servitude to re-pay all of her father's debts. Day after day, night after night, year after year, her only comforts are her mother's book, stolen moments by the warm hearth, and the strange friendship she's developed with the fairy Sidhean.
Until, that is, she meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress...
People went bananas about Ash when it first came out, and rightfully so. It's a retelling of Cinderella* that, like the best fairy tale adaptations, feels both familiar and new. It's built on top of the basic structure of the story, but the details, settings, and relationships have been changed, twists have been added, and in the newer fairy tale tradition, our heroine is quite self-reliant. Ash relies more on her own actions than on the actions of any Fairy Godparent or Love Interest. She gets help, yes. But that help A) never comes without a price, and B) is only ever the first step towards achieving her goals.
Lo also creates a rich landscape for the story to play out in. Ash is set in a world where there is an ongoing battle of beliefs: between those like Ash's mother, who believe in the old stories of magic and the fairy folk, and those like Lady Isobel, who believe in the more fashionable ideas of the church-building philosophers. As in The Thief, Enchanted, and The Unwritten—and all of the other examples of books that feature stories-within-stories—part of the joy of this book is that many of the characters understand the importance of story and the power contained within them.
The main characters, too, have enough personality and motivation that they became more than Cinderella, the Wicked Stepmother, the Love Interest/Savior. (Well, mostly. Her eldest stepsister never becomes more than a Wicked Stepsister.) While it's completely unfair, it's understandable that Lady Isobel would lash out at her difficult new stepdaughter, and while the Prince [SPOILER] isn't the Love Interest [/SPOILER] it was a nice twist that he didn't get set up as a villain, either. Fairy Sidhean is properly inhuman ('cause, you know, he's not human) and somewhat scary, but he's not without sympathetic qualities, either. That said, he—beautiful, possessive, and significantly older than Ash—also provides a more realistic portrayal of the Eddie Cullen-type romantic lead. (In my opinion, anyway.) Kaisa is a character who could easily carry her own book, and it was so lovely to see that the lesbian relationships were portrayed in both a positive and this-is-so-not-a-big-deal light.
Finally, the writing is top-notch. It's the sort of fantasy that will appeal to fans of historical fiction, and the shifts in voice—from the storyline to the country's history to the fairy tales and back again—always feel consistent and comfortably organic. It also seemingly effortlessly conveys the Olde Fashioned Tone of a classic fairy tale, but without the emotional distance that the old stories tend to have. In other words, it would be quite difficult not to develop emotional ties with Ash and Kaisa, and to root for their future happiness.
I'll have to read Huntress sometime soon!
*In case the Wicked Stepmother/warm hearth hadn't tipped you off...