The Language of Thorns is a beautiful collection of dark fairy tales by Leigh Bardugo, author of one of my favourite series, Six of Crows. It presents like you’re sitting around a campfire in the middle of Poland, furs bristling against your ears in the ice wind, face warmed and dry, watching and listening to an elder as they tell your kids the folk tales you grew up with. You’re happy, content, and fully immersed in each story.
I was fortunate enough to grab an ARC for review (loved it–check the review out here) and even more fortunate to have Leigh put her hand up to have a chin wag with me about her new release.
[AC] Leigh, thank you for taking the time to chat to the GdM fans and I.
[LB] Thanks for having me. And thank you for the kind words on the books.
[LB] These are the stories that my characters would have heard growing up. Some of them deliberately evoke popular fairytales, others diverge more radically from the familiar. They come from different countries around the Grishaverse, so you’ll get slightly varying views on magic, heroism, and even beauty depending on whether the story is from Kerch, Ravka, Fjerda, or Novyi Zem. There are a few easter eggs for readers of the Six of Crows and Shadow and Bone series’, but you can also pick up the collection without ever having read one of my novels.
[AC] You’ve stood a bunch of the folk tales I grew up with on their head, consistently leading me down the garden path, only for me to push aside the ferns and find I’m all of a sudden in the kitchen amongst the warm smells of roasted meat. What drove you to create these sorts of stories that tease our nostalgia and then twist us away from the expected ending?
[LB] Always watch out for the ferns. There’s a deep discomfort built into fairytales. In order to enjoy the wish fulfillment of them, we often have to elide the parts of the story that don’t quite sit right. Why would Hansel and Gretel return to a father who had let them be abandoned in the woods—not once, but twice? Why should love be earned through a series of impossible tasks? Why would a girl want to marry a king who had threatened to murder her if she couldn’t spin straw into gold? (Although, to be fair, queen is always a better gig than peasant, fairy tale or not.) Even when we’re kids, I think we pick up on the wrongness of some of these stories, and sometimes, the impulse is to sanitize or avoid them. But that wrong, uncomfortable place is exactly where I wanted to go.
[AC] The writing style is also a bit of a change from what I’m used to seeing from you—these stories are told as if they are folk tales spoken to the reader, sometimes leaping past detail the narrator sees as unimportant, sometimes caught up in a moment at length. Was the change in style something new and challenging for you, or something you’ve kept in your back pocket waiting for an opportunity like this to come out?
[LB] Well, I wrote the first short story, The Witch of Duva, in 2012, so less back pocket than fanny pack. Omniscient third has always been a comfortable place for me to write. I like the idea of the narrator playing with the reader and of that voice betraying certain cultural biases. So the narrator may think she’s telling a tragic tale, but the reader may decide otherwise.
[AC] Ayama and the Thorn Wood really sets the scene for the type of stories we’re going to see in The Language of Thorns—did you set out to make a point of subverting the fairy tale tropes we all grew up with in this particular story in the fashion that I read as the most up-front, or did it just end up seeming to suit the opening role best? Did you have a say in what order the stories were put in?
[LB] My editor and I worked through the order of the stories. I felt strongly that the Ravkan tales should be grouped together and that Ayama should either open or close the collection because it’s very much a story about storytelling. Once we saw the art, we agreed that we should end with When Water Sang Fire. It’s kind of a sinister note to go out on, but the way Sara approached the rise and fall of the story in her art was something special.
[AC] The Witch of Duva was my personal favourite story from the collection, and a prime example of you playing with—and turning on its head—a well-known folk tale. How difficult was it to come up with twists to work into each folk tale, which was the most fun, and which the most difficult?
[LB] I don’t know that I think of them as twists. I know the way the story is told. I know the expectations we can’t help but bring to particular kinds of storytelling and archetypes—I respond to them too! So really, the twists are just about reinforcing those expectations and then taking a hammer to them. The Soldier Prince was probably the most fun because it’s so deeply weird and numinous in a way the other stories aren’t allowed to be. I also just love writing fantasy entrenched in commercialism—look at all of these things we want and the way they control us. (I say this as someone who regularly buys things based on Instagram ads.) The toughest tale was easily When Water Sang Fire because it required so much new world building—the magic of the sildroher, their history with mortals, the undersea world.
[AC] I have to admit that when I started reading the final novella, When Water Sang Fire, my immediate reaction was to not like it all that much. However, with your ability to twist these tales around I very quickly changed my tune, finding it to be one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction at that length I’ve read in a long time. Can you tell our readers a bit about this story and the inspiration behind it?
[LB] I’m glad it won you over, but I’m really curious to know what put you off at the start and where the story nabbed you. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original telling of The Little Mermaid, the sea witch really isn’t as malevolent as Disney made her out to be. Yes, she’s frightening and transgressive, but she’s pretty clear in her warnings to the young mermaid and she doesn’t scheme against her. Then if you watch the Disney version of the story, you get this magnificently overblown villain, but you have no idea what motivates her. She keeps alluding to some age-old beef with the king, but what the hell is it? So my idea for Ulla’s journey arose from somewhere in the space between those two versions of the story. I built a magical system around song so that a mermaid’s voice could represent a power other than beauty. And I also just loved the idea of a kind of mermaid rumspringa, where the young sildroher nobility go to land and get wild.
[AC] These stories read like there is a great deal of personal experience threaded throughout the greater works—life lessons presented to us from your own. Was this a choice made to suit the style of writing (fairy tale), or is there a special piece of your life woven into each tale?
[LB] I’d love to tell you I regularly dispense bits of wisdom over cups of herbal tea, but that’s really not my speed. I think our lives creep into the work whether we want them to or not. Loneliness. Greed. The price of desire. I mean, these are things we’re forced to think about if we want to move through the world with any degree of self-awareness. And I guess I’m always going to be someone who sides with monsters, so that sensibility was bound to bleed onto the page.
[AC] In your acknowledgements you thank Tor.com for publishing your short stories The Witch of Duva[AC3] and The Too-Clever Fox[AC4] . Was this the testing ground for the publication of this collection, and what made you decide that this collection with it’s different style would grab the market in the same barnstorming fashion your first five books have?
[LB] Wow, I appreciate your optimism, but I have no idea if people will respond to this collection that way. I’ve wanted to create a book of Grishaverse folk tales for a long time and I’m lucky enough to have a publisher who was willing to say, “Yes, let’s do this.” If you pick up the book, you’ll see how much care went into it—not just Sara Kipin’s extraordinary illustrations, but everything from the texture of the cover to the concept behind the way the art unfolds with each page. That’s the work of Ellen Duda, Natalie Souza, Raymond Colon, Erin Stein, so many people at Imprint and MCPG. It was a labor of love for all of us. A gamble we took together.
[AC] Thank you for your time Leigh. All the best from the GdM team for the release of The Language of Thorns.
[LB] Thanks for the great questions and for the support you’ve shown SoC. Hopefully we’ll cross paths at a con one of these days.
[AC] GdM Army: I know you love dark fantasy short stories, and I know you’re going to love this collection. Pick up a pre-order by clicking here.
Leigh Bardugo is a #1 New York Times–bestselling author of fantasy novels and the creator of the Grishaverse. With over one million copies sold, her Grishaverse spans the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, the Six of Crows Duology, and The Language of Thorns—with more to come. Her short stories can be found in multiple anthologies, including Some of the Best from Tor.com and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. Her other works include Wonder Woman: Warbringer and the forthcoming Ninth House. Leigh was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from Yale University, and has worked in advertising, journalism, and even makeup and special effects. These days, she lives and writes in Hollywood, where she can occasionally be heard singing with her band.
Contact Leigh on Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram @LBardugo