One thing, though: don't go into this expecting the romance to be present right away. Ash and Kaisa don't start to spend a lot of time with each other until halfway through the book. This book isn't so much romance as it is fantasy.
Shortly after his wife's unexpected death, Ash's father remarries. His new wife does not appear to like Ash very much, and Ash's new stepsisters are not particularly friendly, but Ash doesn't experience the full brunt of their dislike until after her father dies. Ash's stepmother turns her into the family's servant (practically the family's slave), claiming that this is only just, considering that the family is hurting financially because Ash's father's business had been doing badly.
The death of Ash's mother put her into such despair that she used to visit her mother's grave every night, despite warnings from others that she shouldn't, because she might attract fairies. After Ash's father dies, she drifts further away from the world of mortals, emotionally, and begins a strange and probably unhealthy friendship with a fairy named Sidhean. Although Ash wouldn't mind it if Sidhean stole her away from the world of mortals entirely, for some reason he doesn't.
Then Ash meets Kaisa, the King's Huntress, and things begin to change. She finds herself longing for Kaisa's company to the point where she doesn't even notice how long it's been since she last spent time with Sidhean. Kaisa seems equally interested in Ash - she tells Ash her favorite fairy story, teaches her how to ride, and doesn't seem to mind that Ash is only a servant.
Ash begins to recognize that what she feels for Kaisa is love, but if she is to stay with Kaisa, she must somehow figure out how to break free of her stepmother's control and the hold Sidhean still has upon her.
This is really a lovely story. Fairy stories are not only a big part of the book, the book itself reads like a fairy tale. It is loosely based on the story of Cinderella, but Lo doesn't feel the need to include every last detail of the basic story, so the result is something that feels very natural and new.
The story doesn't feature much dialogue, except when Ash is with Kaisa. Even then, Lo focuses as much on Kaisa and Ash's actions, their surroundings, and Ash's feelings while she's around Kaisa as she does on what Kaisa and Ash are actually saying.
And, speaking of Ash and Kaisa, I loved the intensity and sweetness of their relationship. Readers can see the feelings developing between the two of them, but, for most of the book, Kaisa and Ash don't actually say they love each other. As far as Kaisa goes, I think that she probably wasn't sure what Ash felt for her. Perhaps she was afraid of scaring Ash off if she spoke of her feelings too soon, or perhaps her position as the King's Huntress (and a young one at that) taught her to be cautious about speaking of her true feelings. As far as Ash goes, I think she had spent so many years becoming more and more emotionally numb that, when she started to have feelings other than despair again, it took her time to recognize the new things she was feeling.
I admit, I skipped to the end of the book at one point, just to reassure myself that everything would end happily for Ash. When Ash and Kaisa were alone together, things were sweet and wonderful. Their relationship had time to develop at its own pace, and neither woman seemed to feel the need to rush things. When other people were introduced to the mix, things changed. Lore, Kaisa's apprentice, indicated that Ash might only be one of many who believed they had Kaisa's love, only to learn later that she didn't feel the same for them as they felt for her. Kaisa herself seemed like a different person – when Ash saw her around others, Kaisa was less the Kaisa Ash knew and more the King's Huntress. There was suddenly a distance between her and Ash that made Ash feel awkward and uncomfortable, even though Kaisa still seemed happy enough to have her company.
Then there was Ash's relationship with Sidhean. The longer Ash went without seeing Sidhean, the easier it was for her to forget the need she felt to see him, and it got to the point where the need she felt to be with Kaisa was stronger and more real than her original need to be with Sidhean. However, that did not stop Ash from being affected by Sidhean whenever she was around him. His fairy magic was like a drug, and the years she spent around him ensnared her, even though he, for his part, seemed to make no effort to keep her until late in the book.
Whatever Ash felt for Kaisa, everything in the book indicated that it should have been difficult, if not impossible, for Ash to break free of Sidhean, particularly when Ash started to rely on Sidhean's fairy magic to allow her to see Kaisa at times when she would otherwise have been unable to. Every love story in the book that involved fairies ended with the human ensnared by fairy magic. No one ever freed themselves, and, usually, they didn't want to free themselves.
I guess that was supposed to be what made the ending of this book plausible: even as Ash started to see Sidhean again, she never lost her desire to see Kaisa. I didn't entirely buy the happy ending, however. It seemed far too easy for Ash to break free of Sidhean, and, since the book goes straight from Ash explaining to Sidhean how she would become free of him and Sidhean telling her that things may not go quite the way she planned to Ash waking up the next day and going back to Kaisa, I get the feeling that Lo herself didn't really know how to believably free Ash from Sidhean. So, instead, she skipped that part. I considered this a weak moment in an otherwise fairly strong book.
Other things I would have liked to see more of: Kaisa's perspective (we see a little of Kaisa's reaction to Ash but are never privy to her thoughts); Clara, one of Ash's stepsisters (there was potential there, and Lo seemed to want her to be a sympathetic character, but she only ever had brief appearances); the Prince (Kaisa mentions that he's been away at war for so long that he doesn't seem to know when there has been enough killing, but nothing comes of this); and the former King's Huntress (Kaisa tells Ash that the former King's Huntress fell in love and that she quit being a huntress because her lover asked her to – this was another thing that was brought up and then dropped).
Also, while I found it refreshing that no one made a big deal about sexual preference in this book, I found the way Lo handled it to sometimes be confusing and possibly inconsistent. On the one hand, no one finds it unusual that Ash and Kaisa have fallen in love with each other, and I noticed at least one other f/f couple in the book. On the other hand, Gwen, one of the servant girls, tells Ash “Come, let's find you a handsome young lord for tonight” (105) when they're at a party. She doesn't say, “let's find you a handsome young lord or beautiful young lady” - there is still an assumption that heterosexuality is the default, which, in my opinion, makes it seem a little odd that not one person says anything when two women fall in love with each other. It seems like, in this world, no one should assume a person has a specific sexuality. Gwen's comments were the one odd note. At another point, Lore is talking to Ash and has said something that made her blush. A young man walks up to the two of them and asks Lore to dance, notes Ash's blush, and then says to Lore, “Unless you have other designs?” (185). This exchange is more in keeping with how I would have expected this world to work.
Overall, I enjoyed this book, even though I felt like the happy ending came more easily than it should have. Happily, Lo has another book set in this world, Huntress. It's a prequel rather than a sequel, and I don't think it features any characters from Ash. I don't know when I'll get around to reading it, but it's definitely on my list. I'm hoping that the main characters of Huntress show more willingness to help themselves than Ash did - if I had one other complaint about this book, it was that Ash seemed unwilling to see her situation as anything other than hopeless. I would have liked it if she had at least asked Kaisa for advice before starting to rely so much on dangerous fairy magic.
There are no books with f/f romance on this list, mostly because I haven't read very many. I tend to avoid books that look too angsty and depressing, and the few f/f romance books I've tried have turned out to be erotic romance, a sub-genre of romance that I am not fond of.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- The Blue Sword (book) by Robin McKinley - I'm not quite sure why I chose this particular book to add to the list, but something about Ash reminded me of it, perhaps the slowly developing, barely hinted at relationship between Corlath and Harry (Harry is a girl, by the way - sorry, this book doesn't have same-sex romance). After Harry is kidnapped by King Corlath, who treats her as an honored guest rather than as a prisoner, she learns to ride a warhorse and fight and eventually becomes a King's Rider. Harry is less like Ash and more like Kaisa.
- Rose Daughter (book) by Robin McKinley - If you'd like another lovely fairy tale retelling, you might want to try this. I know, this is the second Robin McKinley book I've put on this list, but I think that if you liked Malinda Lo's book McKinley would be a good author to try next. This book is based on "Beauty and the Beast" rather than on the story of Cinderella.
- Revolutionary Girl Utena (anime TV series) - This series is being rereleased in new, gorgeous, limited edition boxed sets by Nozomi Entertainment. I haven't yet seen the series, but I have heard great things about it and intend to watch the whole thing once I own all three boxed sets. Utena is a young woman who was so impressed by the prince who comforted her after her parents died that she decided to become a prince too. A few years later, Utena is attending Ohtori Academy, where she dresses in a boys' uniform and fights a duel for her friend's honor. After winning the duel, Utena becomes engaged to the Rose Bride and finds herself fighting more duels with those who want possession of the Rose Bride. Like I said, I haven't seen this yet, but if you'd like something else with a bit of f/f romance and if you, like me, found yourself wishing that Ash had been a bit stronger and relied more on herself rather than on fairy magic, I think this would be a good series to try. Utena sounds like she would make an excellent huntress.
- Magic's Pawn (book) by Mercedes Lackey - It feels a bit hypocritical to add this to the list after saying I tend to avoid angsty, depressing books. This is the first in a fantasy trilogy that's part of a larger series. Lackey still tries to end things on an encouraging note, but I'll just warn you right now: there really isn't a happy ending to any of Vanyel's romances. Although I still enjoy this trilogy, this book is one of the ones responsible for giving me the impression that many YA books featuring same-sex romance are filled with angst and don't end happily. In this book, Vanyel feels like an outcast in his own family. Everything he does is viewed as "not manly enough" by his father, until finally he is sent away to live with his aunt. While at his aunt's, Vanyel finds love and finally starts to become a little more confident, but what little contentment he is able to find depends on almost everyone around him not finding out that he's gay.
- The Twelve Kingdoms, Book 1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - This is another one that I thought of while reading Ash, although I'm not sure why - I suppose it's the fantasy aspects and the female main character who starts off as someone more like Ash and gradually becomes stronger, more like Kaisa. Be warned, though: this book has absolutely no romance. Yoko is an ordinary high school girl who is transported to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. She is quickly separated from Keiki, the blonde man who could have told her where she was and what she was supposed to do, so she has to somehow find her way on her own, despite the many people and beings along the way who betray her and try to kill her. Sadly, it looks like this book is now impossible to get at a reasonable price. That doesn't necessarily mean you can't read this book - I just took a look, and more than 100 libraries own it, so you should be able to get it fairly easily if your local library participates in interlibrary lending. As an alternative, you can watch the anime, which is a little different from the books but still enjoyable.