Saturday, March 6, 2010

Once Upon A Time Challenge-Books One and Two

The first two books I read for the Once Upon A Time Challenge were Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix and Ash by Malinda Lo. I read both of them in January, but I really wanted to blog about them together (so I'm really sorry about the super long post.) It has taken me awhile to get the reviews written because I need to step back from the books and think about them before I wrote the reviews as "OH.EM.GEE. YOU NEED TO READ THIS LIKE NOW!" I really wanted to be able to talk about why I liked the books and why I think they are such great retellings. Both of these were less "traditional" tellings of the fairy tale we are most familiar with. They both had elements in common with the version most of us are familiar with-a handsome prince, orphaned girls, a ball, miserable step-families, the need for escape, altered appearances. However, they both varied in many ways.

Just Ella is the story of a common girl who wins the prince's heart, but only because she is beautiful. The story takes place after the glass slipper incident, but Ella tells the story of how she ended up in the castle and engaged to the prince. Ella spends her days learning how to be a proper royal lady. She isn't content to sit and do needlework all day, she is upset because she isn't allowed to do anything for herself, and there are times that she is bothered by the opulence that surrounds her when so many in the kingdom are struggling to survive. Ella struggles to find her place in this new world, until the day she falls in love for real-and not with Prince Charming. Then Ella has to decide how she is going to handle the situation she finds herself in.

This book was really good. I enjoyed that it picked up where the original story left off. I was impressed that the story addresses the fact that Cinderella and Prince Charming don't know each other and that their relationship is based on attraction and a shoe that just happened to fit. I liked seeing Ella realize that she was supposed to marry a man she didn't even know, and who had no real desire to know her. I also thought it was nice that Ella fought for her freedom. The ending was abrupt and left some strings untied-mainly about what happens between Ella and the man she loves. Ultimately though, this is a story about finding the things that are important to you and then finding the courage to fight for those things.

Ash has similar themes to Just Ella, but the story is unlike any I have read before. I won't say there aren't other versions similar to Ash, just that I haven't read them. Ash is set in a village far away from the country's capitol. The village borders The Wood, which is inhabited by fairies. The folklore in this book is not any that I am familiar with, but the concept "stay away from the fairies " is clearly stated. However, Ash doesn't follow this advice. Ash is devastated by the death of her mother when she is young. The night her mother dies Ash dreams the fairies are coming for. Ash's father remarries and brings Ash's step-mother and step-sisters from their home in the capitol. Before long Ash's father dies as well. Ash's step-mother takes this opportunity to move the family back to her home in the capitol. Ash's new home borders The Wood, which is comfort for Ash who feels uncomfortable so far away from the only home she has ever known. It isn't long before Ash is completely miserable. She seeks out a dangerous fairy prince-Sidhean- whom she has brushed against the few times she has defied the rules of The Wood and gone wondering on her own. Ash begs Sidhean to take her away from her life, but he tells her the time isn't right. As the story progresses Ash and Sidhean grow close. He is her best friend and a connection to her home village. However, it isn't long before Ash meets Kaisa, the king's Huntress. Ash soon falls in love with Kaisa and is torn between her promises to Sidhean and her love for Kaisa. The love between both Ash and Sidhean and Ash and Kaisa is evident. The reader sympathizes for Ash and hopes that the situation can resolve itself so that Ash and Kaisa can be together. However, your heart breaks a little for Sidhean. Sidhean has always been in the background of Ash's like, he has loved her since she was very young, and he has helped her hide her identity so that she can be with Kaisa. The reader sympathizes with Ash as she tries to find a resolution that doesn't break her heart or the hearts of two people whom she loves.

Ash was beautifully written. Ash's stepmother was vicious. Ash is set up to be an outcast from the beginning. The ideas of Ash's country "superstitions" are completely ignored by the civilized people in the capitol. The Wood is dark, mysterious, and full of wonder. Ash discovers herself in The Wood and learns about love and the different faces love can have. Ash finds her best friend and true love in The Wood, two things she never thought she would have. Ash is about the struggle to be true to yourself and your beliefs. It is about the sacrifices you make when you love another person-and not just romantic love. The friendship between Ash and Sidhean is not traditional, but it gives Ash the confidence to fight for her heart, something she would never have been able to do without a handsome fairy prince. I cannot wait to read more books by the wonderful Malinda Lo.

Both of these books are excellent retelling of the Cinderella tale. Both feature strong girls who don't conform to societies ideas for them and who follow their hearts in a more realistic way than "boy meets girl and they all live happily ever after." Real life (and real love) isn't always easy or simple. Sometimes to be happy you end up hurting other people, and sometimes the people who get hurt are people that you care about. Ella and Ash fought hard to earn their happily ever afters, even if they weren't what was expected.