(Warning: A few spoilers ahead.)
I have a confession to make. I am in my 30s and I still read fairy tales. The only difference is that I’ve moved on from my Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang, and The Brothers Grimm collections to darker, more complex, and mature re-tellings of classic fairy tales, like Angela Carter’s fairy tales. Call it fairy tales for adults, if you like.
I am drawn to fairy tales because they’re like a complete, satisfying meal that keeps you full for hours–there’s action, romance, comedy, drama, lots of gore (looking at you, Brothers Grimm!), and neatly tied-up endings. I could devour them in small doses. My fascination especially for the morbid tales of The Brothers Grimm since I was a kid probably peeled away delicate sensibilities (if ever I had them at all in the first place) and prepared me for the darker reads I’ve encountered in my adulthood.
I am constantly on the look-out for my next fairy tale fix, so when I first saw The Language of Thorns on Amazon and then found it on National Bookstore, I bought it without hesitation. It was the day after my birthday too, and I felt like I deserve it because I haven’t bought myself anything for my birthday (because I promised myself no more new books until I’ve read and let go at least 10 from my library, which is a promise now broken), so it was my post-birthday birthday gift to myself…sort of. I digress.
Anyway, if you like dark fairy tales, folk tales, and mythology fashioned with unexpected twists, lush storytelling, and a feminist flavor, I think it’s safe to say you will like The Language of Thorns. It’s a collection of six stand-alone short stories set in The Grishaverse. I’ll admit that I haven’t read any book in this series yet, but you definitely don’t need to have read The Grishaverse books beforehand to appreciate The Language of Thorns. While I only have 3 favorite stories among the 6, there isn’t a story that I strongly disliked. Each has its own merit and is cleverly crafted.
It’s a beautiful book inside and out. The cover art by Natalie Sousa and Ellen Duda is gorgeous. The illustrations by Sara Kipin are intricate and enhance the reading experience. And if you don’t like all six stories, at least a few of them will stand out for you. Here’s what I think of them.
Ayama and the Thorn Wood
“She had not been much to look at in her youth, and she knew well that only courage is required for an adventure.”
I call Ayama and the Thorn Wood a halo-halo tale. (If you don’t know what a halo-halo is, I feel sorry for you. You’re missing out on one of the most brilliant human creations.) Halo-halo because it has combined elements of familiar fairy tales and myths: a little bit of Cinderella mixed in with A Thousand and One Nights, a generous sprinkling of Beauty & the Beast (and even Shrek), plus a dash of Greek mythology for good measure. I love Beauty & the Beast, Greek myths, and a brave Scheherazade-like storyteller, so I was excited to delve into this. I was not disappointed. It’s probably the only story in the book with a highly satisfying ending for the heroine. Unexpected, but still satisfying.
I am going to take a page from Ayama’s book and “speak truth” especially when it comes to my writing. Even when the truth hurts.
The Too-Clever Fox
“The trap is loneliness, and none of us escapes it. Not even me.”
This wasn’t one of my favorites, but it doesn’t mean that this was a subpar story. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is a fable, and like all fables, has a moral at the end. Though in my opinion, I would rather call it an insight or a point of awareness instead of a moral.
The Too-Clever Fox kept me hooked until the end, and like the titular fox in the story, I was caught unawares, thinking that the villain was the obvious and expected one when it wasn’t. What I like about it is the deception and how it flipped ingrained expectations of how men and women are portrayed in traditional stories. I admit that I was stumped and guilty of conventional perceptions, which I realize is a good thing because now that I am aware of it, I can choose to be more open.
And what was this insight/point of awareness I got in the end? It’s a reaffirmation that women are anything but predictable. That men do not have the monopoly on being Machiavellian. Women can be unapologetic and have mercurial hearts too. And that being so does not automatically make us “evil” because it can be a part our nature too.
The Witch of Duva
“There was a time when the woods near Duva ate girls.”
The Witch of Duva is my favorite of all 6 tales. At first read, it seems like a spin on the classic Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, which I’m sure most of us are familiar with. With that thought in mind, I was lulled into a false sense of security that this story will have a saccharine ending–the wicked witch will die, Nadya (Gretel) will get back home to her dear dad, whole and uneaten, father and daughter will be happy and daughter will forget that her father was a wuss who couldn’t stand up to the stepmother’s cruel treatment of her, and the stepmother will just have to deal with this happy reunion unfortunately. But no. Instead, this is the kind of story that makes me marvel at the prowess of Leigh Bardugo as a storyteller because of its fearlessness in portraying a kind of monster we have all heard of in the modern world–a serial killer. (Isn’t it obvious I’ve watched too many CSI & Criminal Minds episodes in my lifetime?)
Yes, it is dark and morbid, and some might think Bardugo has no business at all tackling such dark, almost taboo subject matter in a “fairy tale” package. But I was blown away by the unmasking of the real monster. This is where the story is at its scariest for me because the monster is so unexpected, and because it is the stuff some real life abduction, abuse, and assault stories are made of. And on that note, I am not gonna say anything more for fear of spoiling the reveal. It is a story best plumbed on your own, but it is not for the faint of heart. You’ve been warned.
“Papa,” Yeva said to the duke, desperate to stand beneath an open sky again. “Why must I be the one to hide?”
Again, this was not a favorite with me, although I think the ending was inevitable and just right. It feels like an allegory type of story that got a little bit preachy at the end. The flow of the story is not as compelling as the others, but the subtle feminist undertone is a good thing, probably the only thing that redeemed this story for me. A woman who frees herself from a world that holds her back, and chooses to forge her own fate instead of surrendering her individuality, independence, and voice to the patriarchal system will always be a redeeming factor in my book.
I like that the raging river is female, having the power to support life or destroy it. It reminded me of the Hindu goddess Shiva, believed to have the power to create, preserve, destroy, and transform. And it is the river that paved the way for Yeva to finally find her voice and the courage to leave her prison and rebuild her own life after the chaos wrought.
The Soldier Prince
“I know who I am without anyone there to tell me.”
I read somewhere that The Velveteen Rabbit was one of Bardugo’s influences in writing this story. I haven’t read that yet, so I only recognized hints of The Nutcracker and Pinocchio. From the start, I can tell this wasn’t going to be a feel-good tale with a satisfying ending. It seems as if that’s a running theme with these stories.
The are many flawed and unlikable characters in The Soldier Prince, who all want their own desires and wants fulfilled. Things don’t go so well for them, and they all have to deal with it, but that only makes them more human. The ending though, is like a frustrating B-horror movie ending, where the once-defeated evil entity is still lurking in the corner, biding its time to wreak havoc again. The evil survives.
It is not one of my favorites, but I give it points for being unpredictable, and daring to include sexual diversity.
When Water Sang Fire
“Magic doesn’t require beauty,” she said. “Easy magic is pretty. Great magic asks that you trouble the waters. It requires a disruption, something new.”
This, for me, is the crown jewel of this collection, the pièce de résistance. When Water Sang Fire is written more like an origin story of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, than a rehash of The Little Mermaid story.
This is the piece that Bardugo has invested the most on character-building and world-building, and it paid off. It is also the longest, most emotionally-charged story in the collection.
Never did I imagine that I would be sympathetic to a character that has been originally written as a ruthless villain. You might think she’s all “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” but it’s more than that. Her very dignity has been trampled on, and sometimes when you’re at your lowest, the more desperate you get to do anything to survive.
When Water Sang Fire explores the goodness and possibilities that come from a selfless, loving heart, and also its flip side–the darkness that consumes and destroys when love has been betrayed and bartered for something less. Until then when revenge has been wrought, would your heart decompress and you can breathe easy again. This is a story that will take you through turbulent waters. I still find myself wondering what Ulla could be up to after this tale ended. It seems like she will live on after every one else has been forgotten.
It is in peeling away the layers and revealing the inner workings of female characters that Bardugo shines. In showing women who are complex, mercurial, and courageous under terrible circumstances, she has spoken truth. That women brave enough to stir the pot and forge their own fates will be rewarded, in due time, not exactly with what it is they want, but what they need in order to thrive.
The tales in The Language of Thorns are not paltry re-tellings of well-known fairy tales. Nor are they for those looking to be satisfied with a safe “all is well” ending. They are original tales with their own powerful force and seductive voice. They will take you through the heart of the dark, forbidden woods where you will have to fend for yourself and emerge a changeling. These stories will stay with me for years to come. And this book is a treasure in my library.
Thank you, Leigh Bardugo. I hope when my time comes, I can stir the pot.
Title: The Language of Thorns
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Imprint (2017)