Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid takes the fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” into a gothic horror story about survival in a deeply haunting world. Ava Reid’s magical storytelling always makes me feel like I’ve fallen down a dark well into another world. I’m frightened every moment but love every second that I’m stuck. A horror novel in the truest sense, Reid’s sophomore novel left me chilled to the bone in all the right, intensely emotional, ways.
Set in the same world as The Wolf and the Woodsman, Juniper & Thorn introduces readers to a new era. Industry brews. Some people are all for it. Others boil in anger at this new modern place as their old Oblya starts to fade. In Oblya live three sister witches and their cruel wizard father. When Marlinchen sneaks out one night to see a beautiful ballet dancer, she experiences a new world away from her father’s old one. Once she catches a taste of freedom, she finds it hard to resist her desire for something new.
The image of what appears to be a seemingly innocent young witch shifts the moment the ballet dancer pukes in front of her. Her reaction is caused by how beautiful he looks while throwing up after imbibing too much vodka.
I like that she sees beauty in someone even when they are objectively disgusting. Everything is intentionally abrupt in this story, as we’re meant to feel the horrifying reality of Marlinchen’s life. Juniper & Thorn speaks honestly about the impacts of child sexual abuse. Magic is dark in this world, where abuse reigns and a father’s appetite has no limit.
Marlinchen, a flesh diviner, has the gift of magical touch. She sticks out like you can smell her. Reid describes characters full of grease, smelly, and bruised. The imperfections of people show themselves, such as in those moments Marlinchen looks closely at every human paying for her service. On closer inspection, even the beautiful ballet dancer, Sevastyan, looks craggly and a bit less chiseled than she previously thought.
Reid writes characters whose hearts you can hear beating in fear for what happens around them. The result is Marlinchen, who is unflinchingly real. I see quietness in her, which is magnificently juxtaposed as she becomes ravenous for hope with someone that truly sees and appreciates her. Moments of love and light amongst all the horror made this into a great read.
This is a book about the uncomfortable truth of pain buried in abuse. There’s no placating the reader in the name of heroic expectations in Juniper & Thorn. The world and the writing are as vicious as real life in its darkest moments. It rips with a ferocity of a hungry wolf in winter, slowly tearing any bit of flesh it can find.