Much has been made of Malinda Lo’s being a “lesbian Cinderella”, and while that’s certainly true, it’s only true up to a point. If you’re familiar with the fairy tale in question, you’ll certainly see most of its familiar elements in play here: the young girl whose mother’s death leads to her father’s disastrous second marriage, the cruel stepmother and stepsisters, the ball attended in secret, the Prince. There’s even a fairy protector.
But even with these familiar elements in place, Lo nonetheless builds a lovely tale that is at once similar to and quite a bit different from that of Cinderella. The fact that this version of Cinderella is much more interested in the King’s Huntress–and that the Prince isn’t really ever in the picture–is only part of this. The rest of it is simply charming worldbuilding, where Lo takes the pieces of the tale we all know and assembles them into a setting uniquely her own. Ash’s fairy protector in this version of the story is in fact a fairy godfather of sorts, with much more of a backstory and much more characterization than you’ve probably seen in most traditional Cinderella retellings. The interaction Sidhean has with Ash is the heart of the magic of this story, and as a fan of stories involving fairies and the Sidhe, I can say that it pleased me greatly. It was unearthly and compelling.
On the other hand, there is definitely a queer element to this tale, and the best thing about it is how refreshingly underplayed it is. The fact that Ash loves another female is not the conflict of the story in the slightest; it’s just there, without angst, without either Ash or Kaisa being considered out of the ordinary for where their romantic interests lie. And if Ash’s interaction with Sidhean is the unearthly driving force of the story, her affection for Kaisa is its sweet, earthly counterpoint, pulling it ultimately towards a very human resolution.
If there’s any complaint I have about this book, it’s that it’s honestly too short. The length’s probably fine for YA, but I came out of it wondering “that’s it?!” and quite anxious for more. Since it was so unexpectedly short, what conflict there is in the story felt a little too easily resolved–but that’s really something I didn’t mind at all, given the overall win of the rest of it. Four stars.