The Language of Thorns

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Illustrations by Sara Kipin.

“Because we know – even as children – that impossible tasks are an odd way to choose a spouse, that predators come in many guises, that a prince’s whims are often cruel.”

Subversions of classic fairy tales, villainous origin legends, and just damn good short stories, The Language of Thorns is not another funny but forgettable Tales of the Peculiar, or a mellow and melancholic Beedle the Bard (though I do very much love Beedle the Bard!). The depraved and disturbing roam wild in Bardugo’s own signature Small Science: a language truly wrought from thorns.

Each tale is seasoned with the subtle savour of the sprawling, breathing, beating world Bardugo first fashioned in Six of Crows – one with myriad palpable cultures and customs.* The Language of Thorns presents six stories from four nations, and in the names and shifting landscapes, we see reflections of the real countries that Bardugo’s world was built on.

When Water Sang Fire aptly springs from the Scandinavian Hans Christian Andersen’s universally recounted The Little Mermaid. The Witch of Duva is infused with Russian leanings towards Baba Yaga cautionary tales, though its solvent is a purebred German bedtime story: Hansel and Gretel. In true Ketterdam fashion, The Soldier Prince blends The Nutcracker (another German tale retold by a Frenchman and dressed in a Russian ballet) with Velveteen Rabbit, an Anglo-American children’s book. Amaya and the Thorn Wood introduces the spirits and superstitions that frequent African folk tales, and slides down the same spiral streams of Arabic tales within tales. Amaya herself is something of a Scheherazade too.

Love speaks in flowers.
Truth requires thorns.

I only wish these tales were still more strongly steeped in the cultures they supposedly were the vessels of. As they stand, they resemble retellings of traditional European fairy tales more closely than the varied collection I had expected from the author who had so effortlessly written the most diverse fantasy novel I have ever read. I also wish we had something from Shu Han, the only nation influenced by Asian cultures; the only Shu character in Six of Crows had the least screen time and character development.

I adored (an understatement) Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, but I have yet to read the Grisha trilogy – it strikes me as a plain-Jane-Mary-Sue. Judging from other reviews, those who have read the trilogy may be delighted to find one or two familiar faces. But The Language of Thorns was darkly delightful even without such prior knowledge.

More favourite quotes: “It was the wounds from the thicket that had proven all the sweet blossoms and starlight had been real.”
“A thousand desperate wishes had been spoken on these shores, and in the end they were all the same: Make me someone new.”

Favourite tales: The Witch of Duva (Ravkan)
When Water Sang Fire (Fjerdan)
The Third Tale, Amaya and the Thorn Wood (Zemeni)

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


*I do realise the Grisha trilogy came first, but that was set in only Ravka. Six of Crows was a considerably more cosmopolitan adventure.

Gold Shadow

Thanks to the author for providing me with an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review. For my full review request policy, please click here.

“Don’t look like you’re going to cry all the time. Tears are one of their favourite drinks around here.”

I liked the second half decidedly more than the first; it was difficult believing both were written by the same person. But first, coffee some general observations: Gold Shadow promised diversity, and it delivered – superlatively. Some uninspired introductions were a little on the nose, unlike the easy assembly of Kaz Brekker’s criminal crew. But it never crossed into tokenism, and once the North American setting was revealed, it lost its studied air.

Imagine if Black Mirror’s Nanette Cole had yelled at Robert Daly, “You think you’re the misunderstood nerd, but you’re just another sick, entitled white guy who can only feel masculine behind a computer screen!” The first half of Gold Shadow would have been the expository equivalent. In fact, it may as well have been one grand explanation, with a side of sudden jumps into minor characters’ points of views, as if the protagonists’ running commentaries were not explicit enough. Besides, for a character whose whole life had been eked out in the same hellhole, the dutifully described details would have long been taken for granted. An especially exasperating scene saw another character explaining the types of slaves to an escaped slave.*

Having said that, getting through the first half was not hard; the plot was intriguing enough. It just could have been a much more full-bodied blend of form and function, given how much better the second half already was.

Ah, the second half. We were finally allowed some actual action, and Perry likewise progressed to more polished prose. Her writing showed such articulate restraint, I almost forgot my prior frustration. I especially enjoyed experiencing Ebony’s world through her enemy’s eyes – after all, this enemy was not privy to any information, so she had no explanations to lavish on us. No, she had to deduce, as we should have been allowed to deduce.

Without the crutch of clarifications, character development also flourished. The main cast was finally dressed with flesh beneath their stereotypical façades: the strong and silent one, the broken beauty, the outwardly cold but secretly soft-hearted leader… A few characterisations had come off as contrived in the beginning (Ebony’s soulless survivor persona, for example; the self-evident declarations of emotional detachment did not help), but Perry’s better bridled hand ended up convincing me to unreservedly, unconditionally invest my (rather delicate) emotions in the entire cast – the ‘good’ and the inane alike.

Another reason Perry is a babe is the blessèd absence of romance. I do like my realistic romances, which I think add some welcome hope and lightness and angst and pathos to high-stakes and action-packed plots. Amongst these characters however, the mildest insinuation of that kind of emotional intimacy would have been a blue whale out of water. So thank goodness for Perry’s wisdom here – a virtue that is sadly absent in worryingly many recent and raved-about young adult releases.

Ironically, the few instances of additional world-building in the second half were also far more effective than all the descriptions in the first half combined. There were still some details missing that would have helped me care more about the characters’ country. I have yet to grasp just how advanced the technology has become, or what the general populace think or know or want. But since Perry concentrated on crafting the slave cities and the rebellion in this first book, it was understandable.

All this to say, I look forward to reading the second book. The ending of this one was tantalising, to say the least. And if the second half was anything to go by, I am sure the next instalment will have writing deserving of a place in young adult bestseller displays.

“Being early meant being on time. Being on time meant being late. But being late was unacceptable.”

And may it be published early, then.

Favourite quote: This may be my new favourite dedication: “To all those aspiring writers who dream first and sleep later.”
Rating: 3/5


*Show, for heavens’ sake, don’t tell! seems to be my personal Peeves. A small selection of books that give their readers proper credit: A Darker Shade of Magic (its sequels, not so much), The Bear and the Nightingale, Caraval, The City of Brass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, How to Live Forever (the novel), The Night Circus, and of course, the ever beloved Harry Potter.

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.

The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” – Ernest Hemingway

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

Is it just me or is reviewing a book you love a lot harder than reviewing a book you really dislike? Because I promise I do not normally take a month to write a review. I originally bought Six of Crows for my flight to New York, but ended up reading Being Mortal instead (I had just lost my phone in the Hong Kong airport so I was, ironically, not in the mood for an escapist book – I was too busy worrying). I was, however, in the mood once I had settled into my queen-sized hotel bed that night and sorted out how I would get my phone back. A mistake, because I only went to sleep at 5 a.m. after I had finished the whole thing in one sitting. #typical

To bookend the trip (pun intended), I bought Crooked Kingdom for my flight back to Hong Kong. But of course it did not download properly, and of course I did not find out until well into the flight (also #typical). So what was the obvious thing to do? Start it at 1 a.m. once I had settled down on my sofa at home. And only go to sleep at 5 a.m. after I had finished the whole thing in one sitting.

I have never read the Shadow and Bone trilogy, which is set in the same universe. I do not think I ever will – the premise looks a bit too plain-Jane-Mary-Sue, and from other readers’ comments, Six of Crows seems to be the darker, ‘edgier’ cousin. But that did not give me any trouble getting into this duology. Bardugo’s sleight of hand in the first chapter was a brilliant move. You are first introduced to an impressively fleshed out cast with histories and futures you quickly become invested in, only to be pitched into the next chapter to meet the real criminal crew. It was a splendidly sly opening, subtly foreshadowing the ingenious, labyrinthine plot in store.

This real crew was easy to love. Bardugo’s greatest strength is the rich diversity of her characters and world. Six of Crows is probably the most diverse fantasy novel I have read in at least the last few years. Few books manage to bring together comparably diverse characters – there are the logistical obstacles (the effort required to craft so many cultures, to devise convincing reasons for these very different people to be in the same place at the same time), and then there is the simple fact that it does not even occur to most authors to actively consider it in the first place.

There was justified criticism of the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Bardugo’s pick-and-mix inspiration from Russian culture. In Six of Crows, she was careful to inject three-dimensional cultural backgrounds into her characters, more mindfully shaping their languages, customs, dress, religions, values, even details like staple foods. With this elaborate arsenal, her duology was even able to touch on exoticization, genocidal indoctrination and state-sanctioned mistreatment of minorities. It is only with such diversity that an imagined universe comes alive – not just as an isolated, generic kingdom or woodland or gritty city. But as a sprawling, breathing, beating world.

Yes, the ‘impossible-beyond-impossible heist by some overlooked outcasts’ premise was a bit clichéd. But Bardugo made it work. Every member of the crew had talents that were incredible, but still believable. There were no deus ex machina magical powers, no deus ex machina ways out. This was where Kaz Brekker’s genius (which is to say, Bardugo’s genius) shone. There was never a moment when I could guess what his ultimate plans were. Just when you think he has finally been cornered, he pulls a Plan Z that flips the cards back into his hand. And because of this uncanny a-hundred-steps-ahead thinking, I was easily convinced that only he could lead a bunch of teenagers into an unbreachable fortress, steal an internationally hunted hostage and escape alive.

If you want a roller-coaster plot and a lucidly imagined world with unrivalled diversity, the Six of Crows duology will be right up your (crooked) canal.

Favourite quotes: Kaz leaned back. “What’s the easiest way to steal a man’s wallet?”
“Knife to the throat?” asked Inej.
“Gun to the back?” said Jesper.
“Poison in his cup?” suggested Nina.
“You’re all horrible,” said Matthias. – Six of Crows

“Have any of you wondered what I did with all the cash Pekka Rollins gave us?”
“Guns?” asked Jesper.
“Ships?” queried Inej.
“Bombs?” suggested Wylan.
“Political bribes?” offered Nina. They all looked at Matthias. “This is where you tell us how awful we are,” she whispered. – Crooked Kingdom

Ratings: Six of Crows 4/5
Crooked Kingdom 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟