“Hong Kong’s defeat had brought Liusu victory. But in this unreasonable world, who can distinguish cause from effect? Who knows which is which? Did a great city fall so that she could be vindicated? Countless thousands of people dead, countless thousands of people suffering … Liusu didn’t feel there was anything subtle about her place in history. She stood up, smiling, and kicked the pan of mosquito-repellant incense under the table.
Those legendary beauties who felled cities and kingdoms were probably all like that.”
Love in a Fallen City, Eileen Chang
Two pages into the first novella, Aloeswood Incense, I was reminded of the Original Feminists panel at the Penguin Classics pop-up in London last spring. Paraphrasing rather poorly, but: it really is a special kind of heartache to love so fiercely books that don’t love you back. Did that make sense? Stay with me.
Moving on to the titular story (and my personal favourite), Love in a Fallen City, my heart was so full it was near bursting. Revealing my address on the Internet is perhaps not the wisest course of action; nevertheless, it was so incredibly surreal to see a Penguin Modern Classic take place just a street over from where I live, and celebrating my home city with such palpable, understated lucidity. 🇭🇰
Going back to that paraphrase, younger me was besotted with Austen, Orinda and Gaskell, but in each author was always confronted with a Single Story disconnect (see: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). I wish she had found this collection sooner.
Thank you, Penguin Books and Karen S. Kingsbury, for this translation. I can’t wait to see our canon continue to broaden.
“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.
My favourite genre has always been fantasy. Before our schoolwork started to actually matter, reading fantasy books took up the vast majority of my time. I recall an English teacher telling my parents that I “eat books for breakfast, lunch and dinner”. But with the impending examinations, I had largely failed to make time to read. It was only when I fell ill last term and could not revise that I picked up Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Before I knew it, I had torn through the entire book, and quickly admonished myself for neglecting to bring Deathly Hallows as well. Stoked by this brief tryst with my first enrapturing novel in a long time, I gradually rediscovered the immense pleasures of losing all sense of space and time – of falling deeply into daring adventures from perspectives sometimes wholly different from my own.
I think the fantasy genre commands so much appeal because of its unique ability to transport us to such extraordinary, enchanting realms. Certainly, you can still travel through time with other books, but nothing offers the same astounding variety of experiences as the fantasy genre. You can take your pick from worlds as bizarre as Pratchett’s Discworld and as plausible as Riordan’s and Rowling’s secret supernatural societies. Besides two books, a memoir and an epistolary novel chosen by Emma Watson for her feminist book club, every book that I have recently read belongs to the fantasy genre.
Having devoured so many of these books has had its fair share of lasting impacts, yet I have only just begun to consider how much they have shaped my personality and priorities. Another question that was posed by an American college was: what matters to you, and why? And my instinctive answer had been my family and friends. Of course, a multitude of other things, both corporeal and abstract, matter to me. But if I were to assume that the prompt was asking for the metaphorical capstone of my pyramid of importances, my loved ones easily take the top spot. In my admissions essay, I had briefly mentioned my love for fantasy books. But on further reflection, I see just how much I had taken their influence for granted.
In Percy Jackson, the titular character’s fatal ‘flaw’ is that he cares too much about his loved ones (hence, threatening to harm them can give antagonists critical leverage). Yet despite its negative label, Riordan’s portrayal of the trait establishes it as an admirable strength rather than a weakness. And in Harry Potter, the ability to love is hailed as the most powerful magic, greater than any potion or incantation. But why are fantasy books especially apt vessels for these messages? The fact that in Harry’s world, even in the midst of unimaginably frightening events, love is the linchpin of Voldemort’s downfall, is especially telling. The idea that something common to everyone – wizards and muggles alike – is, in fact, more powerful than all of the impossible feats we encounter in the entire series, truly demonstrates just how important our families and friends are. It is the exaltation of these ‘mundane’ emotions in fantastical scenarios that underlines their incredible importance.
Many other aspects of how I compose myself can also be attributed to fantasy books. In addition to an unfailing love for our family and friends, when following Frodo’s perilous journey across Middle-earth, or the multiple wars that the Pevensies must fight, or even Harry’s countless emotional and physical battles against an incompetent government, relentless bullying, numerous counts of ostracisation, and Voldemort himself, we learn the arts of perseverance, loyalty, unwavering courage to stand up to not only our enemies but also our friends, and holding fast to what is true and right. In the final book of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, even the youngest readers understand how the dishonesty of one and the ignorance of many can lead to the undoing of an entire kingdom. In Deathly Hallows, it is gravely clear how a thirst for power can lead even someone as wise and respected as Dumbledore astray.
The heroes and heroines of these books were my role models, much more so than most people I knew in real life. They instilled in me the belief that such a capacity for love and kindness, alongside strength of character, is the most important quality than one can ever hope to possess – more important than learnedness or sociability, which were undoubtedly primary concerns of the typical teenager.
A particular favourite:
“Harry – you’re a great wizard, you know.”
“I’m not as good as you,” said Harry, very embarrassed, as she let go of him.
“Me!” said Hermione. “Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery and – oh Harry – be careful!”
Quite relevant in societies like Hong Kong, where life-size posters of academic tutors are plastered to the sides of double-decker buses.
Maybe I was biased, having never been a master of the social graces. In fact, I used to be so introverted I would hide in my room and pretend to be absent whenever visitors came to my family’s apartment. And so, I instead took pride in my determination to be quietly brave and kind and generous.
Indeed, you can argue that you can learn these life lessons through simple observations of the world around you. Or you may well have been taught by wise and loving parents. But, at least from my perspective, no methods can ever be as simultaneously entertaining and educational as spending hours in the warm embrace of exquisitely spun pages and letting one’s imagination run completely free.