ONE PRINCESS. TWO FATES. ONE IMPOSSIBLE CHOICE.
Thorn, a sprawling, rich fairytale re-telling from author Intisar Khanani, is not the first novel to retell the lesser-known fairytale of “The Goose Girl”, but it certainly does the story justice, and breathes new life into it with a beautifully complex, yet inherently good heroine, something that is no longer so common in novels published at any level higher than middle-grade.
Perhaps I’m biased because I love the Goose Girl tale. I’ve loved it since I first read Shannon Hale’s middle grade take on it, a novel by the name of — you guessed it — The Goose Girl. In Thorn, all of the key elements of the story remain: a princess travels to meet a prince of a far-away land, one she has been betrothed to via arranged marriage. A wrench, thrown in her journey by a traveling companion who is a usurping imposter, and cruelly takes the place of the princess, banishing her to a life as a servant. The princess’s new life in the shadow of the royal palace, working as a goose shepherd. A close companion in the form of a horse, named Falada, that the princess in disguise can understand.
In Khanani’s retelling, all of the bones in the original tale’s skeleton remain. However, she adds new depth to the tale by the freedom she takes to create her own characters within that framework. The heroine, Alyrra, particularly shines, as she should, given that she is the narrator of the novel. As the novel begins, it plods along somewhat, primarily because we know little of our heroine at the outset, and the inciting moment — the body-snatching that occurs between her and her spiteful, ambitious lady-in-waiting, Valka — does not occur for a while. But as the novel continues, we get to know Alyrra more, and care more about the plot because of it.
At the outset, Alyrra is quiet, submissive, and more or less just wants to disappear. In the family home of her small kingdom, she is neglected by her mother, and abused by her brother; only the servants show her attention and affection, as well as her friend, the Wind, which she speaks to when she is out in the fields and forests. When her mother agrees to marry her off to Prince Kestrin of the neighboring kingdom of Menaiya, a boy that Alyrra has never met, she puts up no argument, as she assumes it can’t be much worse of a position than she’s already in. When Alyrra’s body is swapped with Valka’s by a sorceress who has granted Valka the ability to become an imposter princess in exchange for Valka’s promise to eventually betray the prince, Alyrra is understandably disturbed, but later comes to view the switch as an opportunity for her to have an ordinary life, one as a working girl, independent and anonymous, happy earning her honest, if small, living. However, the only thing keeping Alyrra from abandoning the king’s city completely is duty: she feels a sense of obligation to warn the prince of the betrayal she knows is waiting for him in the shadows.
Because of her reluctant desire to stay and warn the prince, she takes up the position of goose girl, spending her days tending to the palace’s herd of geese and living in the stables amongst the horses. There, she finds friends in the other stable workers, and especially in the white horse, Falada, with whom she can speak. For the first time, she finds herself truly content with her life, taking comfort in the menial work she does and the unpretentious kindness she finds in the other stable servants. However, she cannot detach so easily from her past life: not only does she need to warn the prince of the imposter Valka and her plan to betray him, but she is cursed from telling anyone, and must find a way to explain what has happened without being able to actually explain what has happened.
Following Alyrra, who is known in her servant’s position as Thorn, through her journey of discovering her own self-confidence and power is a satisfying one. You see, what’s great about Alyrra is that she’s not good at everything. She doesn’t know how to fight. She has little talent for manipulation or spying. While not plain, her beauty is rarely mentioned. Instead, the power of her character is allowed to shine through instead via her own understated, unique strengths. She is observant, kindhearted, and as honest as she is able to be under the curse that has been cast upon her. She wants to do the right thing, and often does, even if her fear hinders her. She is good, yet she is flawed; but she is not flawed in a way that makes the reader feel alienated from her. The entire time reading, one can’t help but root for her, to hope with every turn of the page that someone realizes what has been done for her, and fights in her corner.
Another strong element of this retellings is the characterization of the princess’s intended, the prince. In the novel, Prince Kestrin is given much more dimension than is often afforded the love interests in fairytales. There is a mystery about him; he seems abrupt, sometimes prideful, but there is a reason behind it that the reader yearns to know. And despite this, he is kind, and desperately wishes for someone he can trust. My only complaint surrounding Prince Kestrin is that we did not get more of him! He is not the narrator, it is not his story to tell; however, he was a lovingly-painted character, and every scene he shared with Alyrra jumped off the page, always leaving me wishing for more, even after I turned the final page of the book.
Something that particularly bolsters this retelling is the strength of setting. I’ve noticed that, too often lately, YA fantasies seem fairly unconcerned with their settings, and spend little time developing them or describing them. Thankfully, this is not so with Thorn. The kingdom of Menaiya is easily pictured as one reads along, and the king’s city is described to the extent that there is certainly room for more novels to be written in this world, if the author so wishes it (and I hope that she does!). The names and elements of language introduced all feel organic and thoughtfully chosen; they fit well with the world that they are populating. I also appreciate the pacing and length of the novel. I often find that, with fantasy, pacing can be a particularly tricky balance. While the plot in some areas of the novel goes along at a faster clip than it does in others, everything feels as if it’s in its right place, and I enjoy the passages that the reader is allowed to traverse at a more leisurely pace, as they afford a more detailed picture of the characters and the world that they live in.
This is one of the best YA fantasies that I have read in quite some time, and I desperately want to give it a full five stars. However, just a few things hold me back from giving it that perfect rating. My primary issue with the novel is that, in some places, the conflict of the plot feels too flimsy. There are times when you wonder why some of the characters don’t just do what they keep saying they will do — there is no concrete reason for delay when it comes to some of their actions, and if the reasons are examined with any kind of scrutiny, they easily fall apart. My other issue, however, is far more subjective, and is heavily tied to my own personal preferences. While the romance between the two central characters is a delicious and truly slow burn, I did want more scenes between the two of them. I personally believe that the best romances are always the ones where the love story is not the main plot of the novel (with some exceptions, of course. I’m ride-or-die for Jane Austen), and the relationship between Alyrra and Kestrin was a great example of this method working well for a novel. There were some reveals surrounding their story that were so delicious, I had to put down the book and grin, hand clutched to my heart, for a moment or two. Khanani is clearly excellent at writing chemistry and building affection and respect between two characters, so of course I wanted more! Alyrra spends most of the novel mistrusting Prince Kestrin — far longer than he spends mistrusting her, by any count — and I feel like it would have been nice as a reader to have gotten more time between the two of them that was in a place of mutual trust, especially given the length of the novel. That being said, the book is listed on Goodreads as being the first in a series, so I really do hope that we get more of Alyrra and Kestrin, as well as the kingdom of Menaiya in general.
This book got me out of a reading slump, and really scratched my YA fantasy fairytale retelling itch, and for that, I will be forever grateful. If you love any of those things, as well as lush world-building and richly-drawn characters, I absolutely recommend this book. It was like sipping a warm, sweet cup of tea after a cold winter day outside.
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