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.

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 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟