Thornhedge (2023), by T. Kingfisher, is a bittersweet fairy tale that starts off on familiar ground and shifts, making us consider who defines the monsters and the heroes. This brief novella reads as smooth as cream, and the story seems simple, but it is not.
Toadling is a fairy, left to maintain a hedge of thorns around a tower, where an enchanted maiden sleeps. From this, you might think you know the story. Toadling is dutiful, strengthening the thorn hedge to discourage the eager knights and princes who come at first, determined to waken the sleeping maiden. Over time—Toadling has no way to measure conventional time—the suitors dwindle. People build a road past the hedge. Kingdoms rise and fall, and people forget the story of the sleeping princess and the evil fairy who cursed her. Diligent and faithful, Toadling maintains her task.
Toadling is thoughtful, sad, and achingly lonely. She has felt alone since she was raised by the fairies, and now, guarding the tower, she is literally alone for centuries. Eventually, though, someone comes, another knight. He has read of the maiden’s plight in a book and come to rescue her. Unlike the warlike princes of the past, he seems thoughtful and methodical, walking the perimeter of the hedge, taking measurements, while Toadling watches. And he’s persistent. Against her inclination, Toadling feels forced to extreme measures, which leads… to a conversation.
I’d say, “There are things T. Kingfisher does well,” but frankly, that seems like everything, and she does everything here with simplicity, beauty, and honesty. Toadling knows she shouldn’t talk to the knight, who introduces himself as Halim, but, over a few nights, her story and the story of the tower flow out.
Toadling is a beautiful character. Kingfisher weaves together her backstory with the story of the tower flawlessly, reaching depths of heartbreak and flights of magic in a sentence or two. There’s fancy, too, as when Toadling encourages Halim, the knight, to try the anti-demon spells he was given for the journey. (Halim is reluctant to throw salt in her face or cut her with a blessed knife because it seems disrespectful.) The story’s brevity adds to its depth, and I don’t know how many other writers could deliver everything that’s here in this word-length, yet Kingfisher manages.
It won’t take you long to read Thornhedge, and you will sink into its magic. Set aside time to savor this one.