THORN by Intisar Khanani (BOOK REVIEW)
Content warning: Heroine’s family vary from emotionally to physically abusive.
I first read Thorn in 2018, as a self-published novel, and I loved its smart, wry, thought-provoking take on one of my favourite fairy tales, The Goose Girl. When I heard it was being reworked for traditional publishing, I was thrilled, and I’m so happy to be able to tell you it’s even better in this form!
I’ve always really enjoyed The Goose Girl as a fairy tale; it’s the story of a princess whose role is usurped by her handmaiden, and who has to work as a goose girl in a foreign kingdom, until she can convince the prince she was supposed to marry that she is his true love after all. I love the ‘princess in disguise as a commoner’ trope (another favourite is Mossycoat), I love that this is one of the few fairy tales with a heroine who wields her own magic power (the Goose Girl can call the wind), and there’s also a talking horse! The version I read as a child, Andrew Lang’s, has some heart-breaking poetry included that has stuck with me all my life, and the whole thing ends on a deliciously bloodthirsty note of revenge.
Thorn is a pretty straight-forward retelling in some ways, but it fleshes out the tale into a really smart and thoughtful coming-of-age story, while adding some more magical and feminist elements. Our main character is Princess Alyrra, whose abusive family have made her life hell. She’s loved by the servants, but not her family or the court, and so when a neighbouring king proposes she marry his son, she is sent on her way with the minimum of pomp and fuss. But Alyrra has been having dreams of a mysterious and powerful Lady who frightens her, and on the journey it transpires that her lady-in-waiting, her cousin Valka, has betrayed her for this Lady. Alyrra wakes up in Valka’s body, powerless to stop her cousin from assuming her life.
Once they arrive, Valka-as-Alyrra wastes no time in sending Alyrra-as-Valka away from court. The only job she can take is as a goose girl in the city, so she has to quickly learn to adapt to a new culture, a new language, and a new way of life, all while worrying about the threat Valka and the Lady pose. Reluctant to identify herself as Valka, she asks to be known as Thoreena, a type of plant, but the locals can only pronounce it Thorn. As Thorn, Alyrra discovers a freedom that she has never had before, but she is haunted by Valka’s betrayal and the injustice she discovers among the poor, and vows to make things right, even at the expense of her newfound happiness.
So though our main character is, at various times, known as Alyrra, Valka, Thoreena and Thorn, I’m going to refer to her as Thorn in this review, for ease of reading and also because it’s the name I think she comes to identify with most. Thorn is such a wonderful heroine; she’s got a strong moral core, but she truly and genuinely doesn’t know what to do with it, so it’s fascinating to watch her as she learns how to navigate a corrupt society. She undergoes a huge amount of immensely satisfying personal development, which mostly stems from her realisation that since she is no longer the princess, she has a freedom to act in a way far truer to herself, and then later, the realisation that being a princess had nothing to do with it, that she was complicit in keeping her true self locked away. I don’t mean this in a victim-blaming sense, but in the sense that once she learns that her power is personal to her, and not to her position, she begins to see opportunities for even the most pampered princess to do better.
It’s been a couple of years since I read the original version of Thorn, but the impression I got was not of any major changes, more just a closer look at the world, and a fleshing-out of the characters. I compared the first two chapters side-by-side, and found that the additions have been slipped in masterfully, augmenting the story rather than changing it; we get a little more of Thorn’s train of thought, some more vivid character description, and everything added serves to bring more life into the narrative voice and the world-building. It made me think about how hard every sentence is working here – there’s almost no info-dumping, but you get such a clear picture of Thorn’s life. This reworked version just feels more mature and rounded, without changing the fundamental brilliance of the original.
The magic is handled really well, I think. We do have a talking horse, Falada, but he’s a far more realistic and rounded character than the simple magic beast of the fairy tale, and his story hints at some interesting glimpses of the world outside Thorn’s experience. The Lady, too, is a fascinating character – I know a lot of people bristle at the inclusion of the Fae, but she isn’t the kind you’re thinking of, and I think that adding an antagonist (and especially one with this depth) other than Valka brings a different dimension to the original tale, making it far deeper. The Wind, too, is woven in cleverly rather than being an ambiguous “power” for Thorn to wield in the way of so many heroines before.
Also – and a mild spoiler warning – I adore the way the romance was done. With Thorn and the prince separate for so much of the story, it would have been so easily to fall into the dreaded trap of insta-love, but it’s deftly avoided, because the sheer weight of character work makes it impossible. It would hugely undermine everything Thorn has been through to have the story end the same way as the fairy tale, with a Happily Ever After. It acknowledges the damage done in a powerful way, but that’s not to say this is bleak – you are left with the sense that this, if anything, is a beginning, and Thorn and the prince have an awful lot to discuss.
Look, the thing I love about this book is that it’s smart. It takes a fairy tale (albeit a lesser known, fairly complicated one) and turns those bones into a compelling story in a complex, living world. It’s not a cookie-cutter YA fantasy where the girl tries to take back her kingdom; it’s more subtle than that. It’s about kindness and strength and how the best place to help may not be the obvious one. Thorn is great, yes, but she’s naive and flawed and insecure. She’s trying really hard, and the book allows her to fail more than once, which makes her journey feel much more impactful. It’s honestly one of the best fairy tale retellings I’ve ever read.