My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Length: 224 pages
Release date: 26 September 2017
Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.
Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.
Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.
Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.
Six of Crows, as my first taste of Leigh Bardugo, has forever ingrained in me the expectation that her stories will be bloody, amoral and half nihilistic. I was pleasantly surprised that The Language of Thorns turned out to be a far gentler rendition of trope subversion, producing essentially a rewrite of fairy tales and fables to capture the nuances in the morals they impart.
In her Author’s Note, Bardugo writes that what’s bothered her most in Hansel and Gretel has always been the father–“a man so weak-willed, so cowardly, that he let his wicked wife send his children into the woods to die twice.” This book is a version of Hansel and Gretel where Gretel finds her own strength in the witch’s cottage, a version of The Little Mermaid where there are things more important than princes, a version of the happily-ever-after that’s Cinderella meets Theseus meets Beauty and the Beast meets Scheherazade. It reminded me at times of Because You Love to Hate Me, the other YA anthology this year retelling classic stories from the “villain’s” point of view, but better. Contrarianism against tropes has led to the rise of new tropes itself (eg the evil witch was really an innocent woman spurned, the ugly monster is actually just unloved), so nothing in The Language of Thorns surprised me that much plotwise, but Bardugo’s style maintains the spark to it that’s served her well over four series and counting.
The art is beautiful, and the emotional notes are all on point, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. Quite a few things happened behind which the “how” and the “why” were never explained. It felt like characters’ actions were being written to fit the message intended for that story, rather than resulting organically from their motivations and development. It didn’t stop me from reading and enjoying–after all, these are short stories at the end of the day–but it stopped the book from pushing into the next level for me.
I did notice how some of the later stories, namely The Witch of Duva and Little Knife, reflect or imitate the stories that Ayama tells in Ayama and the Thorn Wood. If intentional, it’s a nice touch by Bardugo. If not, it just goes to show how the collection of stories aim at a similar set of morals: people may not be what they initially seem. Good people can be ugly, and bad people can have the kindest appearances. True strength must be found within yourself. And so on. They’re good messages, for sure, the kind of thing that you’d consider giving to kids. It’d probably have a more positive effect ideologically than Hans Christian Andersen’s versions (or, God forbid, classical mythology versions).
The marquee story of the collection is obviously When Water Sang Fire, which occupies the last slot and twice the length of the others. It deserves that distinction, weaving the Bardugo themes of friendship, ambition and betrayal into a heartbreaking and sympathetic tale. If you’re not going to read any story in The Language of Thorns, read this one. It’s pretty representative of everything good the author has to offer. In her words, when your chance comes, I hope you stir the pot.
Oh, and is that the Darkling? Asking the important questions here. Seriously. I haven’t properly read the Shadow and Bone Trilogy (I know, I know), but even I could tell the resemblance. Or the appearance, if it was him. I may actually go pick up Shadow and Bone now.
All credit for the lovely art in this post goes to Sarah Kipin, official illustrator of The Language of Thorns.