The Language of Thorns

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.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

The final addition to one of my most beloved series, The Girl Who Raced packed in all of the Dramatis Personae we have come to know and love, and laced them together in a delicate orange bow. And the ending, what a marvellous conclusion to the wondrous adventures that were the preceding novels! I applaud Valente for dreaming up such a splendid finale. I would wax nostalgic about it and risk unravelling Fairyland’s heart, but where would the fun be in that? Read the book yourselves! (If you had already, you might have noticed the clever allusion in my rhetorical question, of which I am particularly proud.)

Ah, I notice that Valente’s lemony prose is seeping into my own. It had first captivated me as I was flipping through what was to become one of my favourites of all time. But I have to admit, her bubbling streams of ‘ands’ and tangents made mesmerising narrations in the first three novels, but they became somewhat tiresome in The Girl Who Raced. Perhaps it is because, for the first time, there was a tangible sense of urgency – Race is in the title, after all. Whereas in the preceding books, the reader drifted over and under and through yet more unexplored terrain, with all the time in the world to be filled with adolescent awe. But thankfully, her prose only began to lose colour towards the end, and then picked right up again. And her unrivalled verbal illustrations continued to weave magic during the first half.

I will admit, I still had not finished The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, finding the abrupt departure from September and Saturday and A-Through-L a bit too disconcerting. And the plot lacked the same enchantment that had brought the first three books to life. I did, however, skim enough of it to understand the chaos that was in the first chapter of this one, so I had no trouble navigating at all. Nonetheless, to my more patient readers, please do try harder than I did, if only to write me a detailed summary afterwards! And on the topic of September and Saturday and A-Through-L, the original revolutionary trio, it took a while to remember that September was no longer the Heartless 12-year-old with ungainly feet, or that Saturday was once too timid to raise his voice above phantom whispers. I had not realised how much I had missed them until I finally gave in and purchased the Kindle edition (being too impatient to order a physical copy and have to wait for it to arrive).

I am certainly sad to let go of the Winds and Imogen and Iago and even the Marquess (just in case you were not aware, there is actually a prequel available for free online, which narrates her first rise to power). Though, with such a perfect ending, the sentiment is more sweet than bitter, not unlike looking up to unexpectedly find an endless indigo sky strewn with shooting stars and knowing that dawn is near.

Rating: 4/5

For my review on The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, the third book, please click here.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

I realise that this review should have been written a long time ago, since the fifth and final book of the series came out earlier this month. But since so many of my friends still had not heard of these books until I kept waxing lyrical about them, I like to think that there is still a point to publishing this post. (To be perfectly truthful, the main reason for the delay is that I had only read the book two days ago.)

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The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland is the third book in Catherynne M. Valente’s latest series. It possesses all the characteristics of her works, complete with a subversive narrator, profound prose and an eclectic mix of characters and creatures. If you found the lush narrative of The Night Circus intoxicating, then this series will prove to be an immense delight. In fact, Valente’s detailed descriptions are even denser. In this particular book, her naming conventions are as witty as ever, with new locations such as the Stationery Circus (a play on the archetypal ‘travelling’ circus), where the performers are made entirely from love letters and birthday invitations. By now, I have begun to actively look for double entendres, literary allusions and satirical jokes beneath every name and statement.

Some of my favourite examples are in the first book; the protagonist hears about other children Stumbling into Fairyland through armoires (Narnia) and tornadoes (The Wizard of Oz), and dreams about having buttered cogs for tea (in Alice in Wonderland, the movement of the Hatter’s watch is buttered). The stories are allusive treasure troves for adults and seasoned readers, but younger audiences will also be enchanted by the bizarre, thought-provoking world and storylines. However, I did occasionally find the plot of The Girl Who Soared rather slow because of the heavy, meticulous descriptions, but if exquisite accounts of Valente’s unique Fairyland appeal to you, then you would not necessarily consider this a negative trait.

This instalment focuses on the universal concepts of ‘fate’ and ‘growing up’, and Valente demonstrates an incredible talent for exploring these timeworn ideas in a refreshing and eloquent manner. After glimpsing a shocking character at the end of the first book, the protagonist is still confused and unsure of how to approach her future. If she has a fate, can she also have free will? Can she choose anything? Was she ever able to choose? Her frustrations are complicated by her friend, an ocean djinni, for whom time is more akin to a circle than a straight line, and who often encounters his past and future selves. In his case, it seems that his future is already set in stone. But if he had to make decisions to reach that future, then do those decisions count as choices?

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two is another deceptively complex, whirlwind adventure and will not disappoint fans of the first two books.

Favourite quote: “The whole point of growing up is to get big enough to hold the world you want inside you. But it takes a long time, and you really must eat your vegetables, and most often you have to make the world you want out of yourself.”
Rating: 4/5

To buy the book, click here. This post was not sponsored.
All illustrations courtesy of Ana Juan.