I love it when a book manages to surprise me! I picked this up from the library at a whim, no real expectations, but not overly optimistic from the vague description and some of the reviews I read here on Goodreads. Ash & Bramble gets likened to a Cinderella retelling, but that’s a bit like saying Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters was a retelling of Hansel and Gretel—in that it is entirely inaccurate. Sarah Prineas actually engages in a very high-concept metafictional exercise that delights the lit nerd in me, even as the deliberately stock characterization makes the story fall flat at times.
Pin is a slave to Story, as are the fellow nameless prisoners in the Fortress. She manages to escape, along with Shoe. I read some reviews that lamented these names, but if you stick with the book long enough to understand what’s happening, they begin to make sense. These people have been kidnapped by the Godmother, their memories taken from them, to fuel the turning of Story’s wheel—as long as Story goes on, the magic keeps flowing. It’s a very sinister take on the concept of fairy tales and how our beliefs reify myths.
What really cinched this book for me was the idea that the Godmother was just as caught up in this as anyone else. She is not the moustache-twirling antagonist. While she started Story, it has become so powerful she is now part of the pattern. It made me wonder who she was and how she originally conceived of this gambit—I’m kind of hankering for a prequel, in which Godmother and the Witch face off against each other, with the Witch losing.
In contrast, Pin and Shoe aren’t as interesting—but what happens to them is. They escape the Fortress pretty quickly, only to be separated, with Pin losing her memory a second time and becoming Pen (Penelope), thrust into the Cinderella Story pattern that consigns Ash & Bramble to its eternity of inaccurate comparison to a fairytale-retelling. I admit to some confusion at first—but then I really began to dig this narrative twist. Firstly, Prineas is able to give Shoe a lot more agency now that he is on his own (in the Fortress, the defiant Pin pretty much drags him around on the escape mission, and while it’s fun and suspenseful, Shoe comes off as … well … a Shoe). Secondly, I could feel a lot of sympathy for Pin/Pen, especially with everyone around her (Shoe included) trying to tell her what role she should have. She has her memory taken from her not once but twice!
I also love the love triangle that isn’t a love triangle. And again, it gets some hate from this in other reviews—I kind of understand those reactions, because it does feel awkward. But that’s also the point—Story is pushing Pen and Cor together. The whole idea that we can’t be sure of the genuineness of Cor’s feelings for Pen is so insidious. Nevertheless, both Cor and Shoe treat Pen with respect. And they don’t try to coddle or sideline her like some of the love interests do to female protagonists in other books.
Where Ash & Bramble starts to fall down is the last part of the book, when Pen et al are finally ready to take on Story. The first two-thirds of the book is a wild ride, full of tension as we figure out what’s happening and watch Pen and Shoe try to escape from Story’s clutches. But when they finally decide to stage their little rebellion, it happens a little too smoothly. Pen is almost on autopilot, relying quite a bit on her thimble. While I’ll cop to loving the final showdown between her and the Godmother, and the way Pen tries to overcome the Godmother’s raw force of will, the ending just doesn’t feel as clever as the rest of the book.
And I really do think the book is, by and large, clever. For whatever flaws or holes it has, it has a very experimental vibe to it, and I like that. I was a bit at a loss for why it’s shelved as young adult, because it just feels … general audience to me. That being said, if its YA label means younger readers pick this up and get exposed to more high-concept stories, all the better. I love the diversity of literature, how we can have straightforward narratives and narratives that play with your mind like this one does. Ash & Bramble is far from “Cinderella retold.” It’s a cool literary tweak of the whole idea of fairytale magic.