Reposting to include Rebecca’s new review.
The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic by Leigh Bardugo
The Language of Thorns (2017) is a collection of six stories and novelettes by Leigh Bardugo, dark and lyrical folk tales set in her GRISHA universe, in the Russian-inspired country of Ravka and other nearby countries. These are stand-alone stories, unrelated to the specific characters and events in the GRISHA novels. This tales might be told on a dark night by a villager living in Ravka.
Bardugo’s stories, containing elements of both fantasy and horror, include elements of traditional fairy tales like “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” but morals are twisted into something new and traditional tropes are subverted. Sometimes handsome princes and kings are weak and evil, and beasts honorable. Fathers don’t always know best. Beauty may be more of a burden than a gift. Bardugo takes fairy tale tropes apart, examines their assumptions, and recasts them in new and often much more logical ways, often with an eye toward feminist values and empowerment of women.
The six stories are:
“Ayama and the Thorn Wood:” In a troubled kingdom, there’s a parallel between the royal family and a poverty-stricken one: both families have a favored, handsome older child and a younger one that is unattractive and despised. The younger prince, born with a wolf’s fur and horns, is confined to a labyrinth … until he escapes to the Thorn Wood. Ayama is stocky and clumsy, and is treated like a servant by her family.
As the children in both families grow older, the wolf prince begins terrorizing the country. Ayama is volunteered by her family to journey to the thorn wood to confront the wolf prince. She goes, although with a great deal of fear and reluctance. These two characters, disregarded and rejected by everyone around them, find power in themselves and in each other as they tentatively begin to communicate. Amaya tells stories to the wolf prince, changing the endings to better suit both herself and the prince, and gradually realize that they can change their own stories as well. It’s a potent tale.
“The Too-Clever Fox” is a very fable-like story about (logically enough) a fox. Not a cute fox, though: an impressively ugly one. But Koja the fox is clever, and smart is more important than looks. I was thoroughly charmed by this animal fable, right up until the point Bardugo slapped Koja ― and me ― upside the head for thinking we had everything all figured out.
Told in deceptively simple style, this tale follows Koja from his birth (when he’s almost eaten by his mother for being so small and ugly, and is saved only by his quick thinking) through various adventures. Koja learns about patience, sacrifice, and the importance of friends. But mostly he learns that despite his lack of good looks, his cleverness and creative thinking will get him ahead. When a hunter moves into the area and captures and kills several of Koja’s animal friends and neighbors, Koja takes steps to save the day.
As with all fables, there’s a moral to this story … but it’s not the one I thought was going to be served up to me. Well played!
“The Witch of Duva” is a dark Russian-flavored fairy tale with echoes of Hansel and Gretel and a serial killer twist… or is it wolves? Nadya and her brother Havel are the children of Maxim Grushov, a carpenter and woodcutter. They live in a village on the edge of a deep, dark forest. When a famine hits, Maxim no longer gets enough work from the other impoverished villagers. The children’s mother fades away and dies, the famine deepens, and ― worst of all ― girls begin disappearing from the village.
Real fear came upon the town. In the past, girls had vanished every few years. True, there were rumors of girls being taken from other villages from time to time, but those children hardly seemed real. Now, as the famine deepened and the people of Duva went without, it was as if whatever waited in the woods had grown greedier and more desperate, too.
Nadya’s father marries a neighboring widow, who makes it clear that Nadya isn’t welcome in her house. She sends Nadya out to check their traps for rabbits in the dark. When Nadya gets lost in the forest, she comes across a strange hut in the woods where an old woman cooks over a vast black cookstove, with bubbling pots and an oven large enough for a child to get inside. I might be forgiven for thinking that I knew where the story was heading at this point, but I was completely wrong. Those who like dark fairy tales will enjoy this one.
“Little Knife:” It’s fascinating to see Bardugo subverting so many traditional fairy tale tropes here. The duke’s daughter Yeva is surpassingly beautiful … so beautiful, in fact, that it literally makes people crazy: nurses and midwives fight over her and try to kidnap her as a baby (her father ends up hiring a blind nurse for her), reasonable men come to blows over her as she grows older, and she can’t ever go outside.
So Yeva’s father decides that he needs to marry her off when she’s about sixteen, and holds a contest with challenges for her suitors, because that’s what prideful aristocratic fathers get to do in these tales. It’s clearly not as much fun as it might sound for the girl.
When her father returned to the palace and Yeva heard what he had done, she said, “Papa, forgive me, but what way is this to find a husband? Soon I will have a fine mirror, but will I have a good man?”
Nor, as it turns out, is it fun for her father in this case. He assumes that his favored suitor, the prince, will be able to use his wealth and servants to win all the challenges, but there’s a poor Grisha Tidemaker, with magical power over water, who comes into town just as the first challenge is getting rolling. Seeing Yeva, he decides to throw his hat into the ring. With the invaluable help of a nearby river, which he calls Little Knife, he’s hard to beat.
But. It doesn’t work out the way you might guess.
Now, if you have been foolish enough to wander from the path, it is up to you to make your way back to the road… If you are lucky, you will find your friends again. They will pat you on the back and soothe you with their laughter. But as you leave that dark gap in the trees behind, remember that to use a thing is not to own it.
“The Soldier Prince” is primarily a dark retelling of The Nutcracker, with several twists, though I think it also borrows a few elements from The Steadfast Tin Soldier. A smooth-talking clocksmith called Droessen, intent on raising himself in society, gives a nutcracker to a young girl named Clara, for his own selfish reasons.
This is the problem with even lesser demons. They come to your doorstep in velvet coat and polished shoes. They tip their hats and smile and demonstrate good table manners. They never show you their tails.
Clara adores the nutcracker, who has a hard time not losing himself in her and others’ desires. The tale gets a little murky, but I appreciated the theme of finding yourself and determining your own path in life. The Mouse King gets a cameo here to good effect.
“When Water Sang Fire,” the longest tale in this collection, immerses the reader in a society of mermaids who have magic that manifests in the form of song.
Magic flowed through all of them, a song no mortal could hear, that only the water folk could reproduce. In some it seemed to rush in and out like the tide, leaving little in its wake. But in others, in girls like Ulla, the current caught on some dark thing in their hearts and eddied there, forming deep pools of power.
Ulla has one of the most powerful magical voices in their world, but is ostracized for acting and looking different, with her black hair and grayish skin. When she connects with red-haired Signy, she finds not only friendship but a more powerful magic in their duets. Despite their obscurity in sildroher society, the undeniable power of their magical songs brings them to the attention of others … attention that might raise them in society or prove their undoing.
Bardugo has a knack for getting right at the heart of the flaws in people’s characters. The ending reveals a delightfully unexpected (at least to me) link to a character that will be familiar to most readers.
Each page of these stories is framed by Sara Kipin’s illustrations, which gradually morph from page to page until bursting into full flower with a two-page illustration at the end of each story. It’s a wonderful and well-executed concept.
The Language of Thorns invites the reader to share in the characters’ learning and growing experiences, their triumphs and their heartbreaks. The invitation in “The Witch of Duva,” “come help me stir the pot,” resonates long after the stories end.
Have you ever read a book that you felt was written especially for you? The Language of Thorns is that for me, ticking nearly every box on my “Things I Love” list. Dark fairy tales? Check. Subversive narratives? Check. Strong heroines? Check. Moral ambiguity? Check.
According to the Author’s Note, Leigh Bardugo was initially asked to write a prequel to her Grisha trilogy (comprised of Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm and Ruin and Rising.) Instead she was inspired to tell a series of tales that might have been told within the world of the Grisha, including terms and locations that would be familiar to those who’ve already read the trilogy.
Many of them also bear a resemblance to stories told within our world, but she plays around with expectations and plot-points to such a degree that each one is a surprise despite any echoes of tales such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Little Mermaid”.
There are six altogether, from different parts of the map that’s included at the back of the book, with beautiful illustrations by Sara Kipin. As each page turns, the artwork around the border of the text grows more and more detailed, until the final pages depict the “completed” illustration, revealing the full truth of each tale. It’s ingeniously done.
“Ayama and the Thorn Wood” is something of a “Beauty and the Beast” tale, in which a kingdom is plagued by a terrible monster who lives in the thorn forest. A reward is promised to anyone who might go and negotiate with the beast, but only Ayama — plain and clumsy — imagines herself to be expendable enough to risk her life. The tale sets the tone for the rest of the book, as absolutely nothing here is what it seems.
“The Too-Clever Fox” reminds me of the old Uncle Remus tales, in which an array of animals try to outwit their human neighbours in an on-going fight for survival. Koja is a cunning fox who can escape from any situation with the cleverness of his words, but even he is nervous when a terrible hunter comes to the nearby village — one who travels with a mysterious sister who might hold the answer to his prowess.
“The Witch of Duva” is a fascinating take on “Hansel and Gretel”, and perhaps my favourite story of the collection. Girls are disappearing from the village of Duva, and young Nadya is convinced her new stepmother has something to do with it. But one day she’s sent out into the woods to check the traps, and happens across a strange cottage where an old woman stirs a massive pot. Whatever you think will happen next, you’re wrong.
“Little Knife” is based around another fairy tale motif: that of setting three impossible tasks in order to win the hand of a beautiful princess. In this case the princess is Yeva, a girl so beautiful that she considers it a curse. Duels are fought over her, and she’s confined to the palace so as to not cause riots. Her father sees this as an opportunity to expand his own power, though a Tidemaker called Semyon finds a way to outwit the restrictions set upon him. But what does Yeva herself want?
“The Soldier Prince” is an interesting take on The Nutcracker, which is also based upon The Velveteen Rabbit and its notion that only love can make someone real. Here, the titular Nutcracker is placed within a family home for a nefarious reason, and it’s only when Clara gets older that she begins to realize what it might be…
The final story in the book is also the longest. “When Water Sang Fire” carries more than a few echoes of “The Little Mermaid”, though it’s worth saying that the protagonist’s name — Ulla — is the Swedish diminutive of Ursula. This certainly reads like the origin story of a famous villain: Ulla is a mermaid (here called sildroher) with a beautiful voice who only discovers how powerful she can be when paired with fellow singer Signy.
A tradition in their underwater kingdom is for the royals to travel regularly to the surface world, where young princes can hope to find a gift impressive enough to make them the next heir to the throne. This year, Ulla and Signy accompany the Prince Roffe to the strange, dangerous lands above the waves, where his idea for a life-changing gift comes at a terrible price.
If you’re already a fan of the Grisha trilogy, or you simply like dark and twisted fairy tales, then The Language of Thorns is for you.
Enter the Grishaverse…
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.
Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, the tales in The Language of Thorns 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.
This collection of six stories includes three brand-new tales, each of them lavishly illustrated and culminating in stunning full-spread illustrations as rich in detail as the stories themselves.
The illustrations for each story are simply stunning, aren’t they? I agree with all of your story reviews, especially “The Soldier Prince” — I thought that one was just a bit unfocused in comparison to the others, though they were all so much fun to read. :)
I was going to recommend this to you if you hadn’t read it, Jana! It seems like a collection that would be right up your alley. :)
I got it for Christmas last year, to my great joy. I’ve been meaning to write up a review, especially so that I could then recommend it to you (hahaha!) but this whole year, well, you know. I’m so glad you enjoyed this collection as much as I did!