The a Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo is a collection of short stories set in the Grishaverse, where two books I loved last year — Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom — are set. To say I was excited to get the nod from Leigh and her team to both get an early look at this book and interview her would be one of the understatements of the month.
The Language of Thorns is written beautifully in a dark fairytale style — something I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to get in to when I first opened the book. Any doubts I had at the beginning before opening the book quickly dissipated as it became evident these were exactly the kinds of fairytales a guy like me could get his teeth in to.
So what exactly do you get in The Language of Thorns? Leigh nails it on the head in her interview with GdM: “These are the stories 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.”
Bardugo has delivered an excellent read, and I’ve done a short review of each piece for you.
AYAMA AND THE THORN WOOD
Two sisters are born to a poor family during a long, hard summer. One so light on her feet and graceful all feared she may blow away and the other the exact opposite of her sister: sturdy and clumsy, treated as a servant where her beautiful sister is groomed for marriage above the family’s station. The latter is our protagonist, Ayama.
A beast beneath the royal palace breaks loose and creates havoc — an unstoppable force of destruction with none left brave enough to fight it or appease it… except Ayama.
Ayama and the Thorn Wood is a really enjoyable tone-setter for the series, getting you into the voice, style, and tone of the collection, all the while telling a story of bravery.
THE TOO-CLEVER FOX
Koja the ugly fox was birthed to a vain mother and grew to rely on his sharp wits to survive the wild. He befriends a young woman whose older brother is a cunning reaper of woodland dwellers, leaving no track or trace. The sister is lonely and trapped with her brother, and Koja decides to use his wits to help her escape.
The Too-Clever Fox was a fun story with a pretty gnarly climax. There were a couple of moments where my skin deadset crawled. Well played, Leigh.
THE WITCH OF DUVA
Nadya and her father Maxim find themselves in the grips of the worst famine in a generation. Maxim’s business is gone and a long hard winter looms. Something else is in the grips of the famine also, and young women are going missing, and her father is in trouble.
The Witch of Duva felt the closest to the fairy tales I remember from my childhood, but Bardugo, as she does so well in this collection, writes an excellent twist. This one was a favourite of mine.
Yeva is so beautiful the rationality of men deserts the room when she enters. Duels break out as they fight for her heart and men die in their efforts to own her. Yeva’s father takes advantage to try to further his own business endeavours, and poor, quiet Semyon the water Grisha lets the river help him try to win her hand.
Again, Little Knife had a wonderful twist I didn’t see coming inside a beautifully told tale. There is a very strong message in this tale that I enjoyed reading immensely. This story is gorgeous.
THE SOLDIER PRINCE
The clockmaker creates magnificent mechanical masterpieces great and small, though his heart is lonely and in want of partnership. Strange happenings follow him from house to house, and when he sets his heart on Clara, stranger things still start to happen as he chases her through a gift like no other — a nutcracker.
The Soldier Prince is pretty haunting and odd tale that built its momentum from about half way after being a bit of a slower starter. Bardugo has done a magnificent job of creating magical mystery as the nutcracker tries to work out what he is, his reality, and what he wants in life.
WHEN WATER SANG FIRE
Ulla of the Sildroher is different to the other girls who live under the swells of the sea. Her skin slightly grey and her singing voice twice as magnificent as any girl her age, she is an outcast around whom whispers and rumours about her parentage abound.
When Water Sang Fire is a novella that had my least favourite start to any entry in this collection, but became one of the best stories in the book–hands down. It was a perfect way to finish the collection, a tale of friendship and of being different, of loyalty and betrayal, a barnstorming end to a fantastic book by a brilliant author.
What is just so damned enjoyable about this book is that you so often get led down the back garden path only to brush aside the ferns and realise you’re somehow in the upstairs gaming room.
Bardugo has nailed the fireside tale telling feel–it’s like you can feel the warmth of the fire on your face, the cold nipping the back of your ears, and see her face lit up by the flames as she regales you with dark tales at midnight.
Is it Grimdark? No. But it’s fun, and you’ll like it.