"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Monday, May 2, 2016

Review #9: Thorn, by Inistar Khanani

Thorn arrived in my mailbox for the Kid for her birthday from my friend who lives in Alaska. Her wife went to college with Intisar Khanani, and so they sent her a signed copy and a note that maybe I should read it first. And since I was in a slump, and she had a book report due on something else, I snagged it, not expecting a whole lot, which just goes to show you about expectations, because this book blew me away.

Thorn is the retelling of Grimm's Goose Girl fairy tale, with which I was unfamiliar (and still am, actually), with a slight fantasy angle. My taste in fairy tales runs to the decidedly unfeminist Disney versions of the stories and fantasy is most definitely not my genre, so again, I wasn't expecting a whole lot. But it turns out that when the story is good, none of that matters. And this story is SO VERY GOOD.

Princess Alyrra stars as the unhappy princess who is forced to marry a foreign prince, but on her way to his kingdom, she is the victim of an attack, and her identity is switched with that of Valka, her lady-in-waiting, and suddenly, Alyrra realizes that she can control her destiny for the first time in her life. Making a life for herself as the castle's goose girl and living with the horse handlers near the barn, she befriends a beautiful white horse. The horse is not as he seems, for he can communicate with Alyrra, and warns her that not only is she in mortal danger, but Prince Kestrin is as well, and suddenly, Alyrra must choose between her freedom and Prince Kestrin's life. And whatever she chooses will certainly have a ripple effect throughout the kingdom.

Note: SPOILERS AHEAD but there's no way to talk about how great this book is without a few spoilers.

Alyrra starts out as a pretty shy and meek character, very unsure of herself and kind of just going along with what she is told to do. I found myself quite frustrated with her in the opening pages, in fact, and wasn't quite sold on the story because of that. And then somewhere along the line, her inner strength comes out, and she becomes a force to be reckoned with. But there's no badass version of a She's All That makeover where she magically slays the dragon and gets her prince at the same time; instead, there is heartbreak and fear and mistakes made, but there is also some of the best character development I've ever read. In fact, you know who Alyrra becomes? She's a more developed The Paper Bag Princess for teenagers. (Although luckily, Prince Kestrin is way better than that bum Prince Ronald.)

There's no happy ending here. Alyrra and Kestrin don't kiss at midnight and live happily ever after. Instead, they come together at the end of the novel and talk about how maybe they'll be willing to trust one another a bit. And maybe, down the road, they might even like each other. And maybe even further down the road, they'll fall in love. But for now, it's enough that they've survived, and they know the other one has their back. There's no happy ever after at the end here, but what there is - a possibility of a happy ever after - felt more genuine and real to me than any wedding montage in any rom-com I've ever seen. 

There are some very dark themes, and despite how much I loved the story, those themes made me decide to hold this back a year or so before giving it to the Kid. (For reference, she's twelve (and a half. She'd want you to know that, the part about being "and a half". In fact, she says I only have six more "good months" before she's a teenager, because thirteen is apparently when all hell breaks loose. I don't have the heart to tell her that all hell has already broken loose and she's sort of been invaded by aliens. I'll save that for when she's older. Maybe after her boarding school stint.)) Anyway, the dark themes here include some not-so-veiled allusions to some abuse by Alyrra's brother, beheadings and killings with pretty graphic descriptions, a few allusions to rape and violence, and Alyrra's mother, the Queen, is not exactly Mrs. Brady. In fact, she makes all those evil stepmothers we know and love to hate look like a walk in the park. But none of the darkness or violence felt gratuitous; this is just a dark book, with a dark setting and dark themes, and I think that the Goose Girl is a dark story to begin with.

Having said all that, this is the perfect book for a more mature YA reader who wants something a little bit (a LOT) better than vampires or insipid stories about prep school boys, and while it's not exactly a kissing book, there are enough romantic overtones that young hearts will be satisfied. Older readers will appreciate a new and interesting take on an old story, and Khanani is an excellent writer (and I'm not just saying that because I kind of sort of know her). 

And it's not just me, you guys. Thorn has a 4.6 rating on Amazon (67% five star rating) and a 4.05 on Goodreads and it's won a Badge of Approval from Awesome Indies.

Go buy this book. Read it. Give it to every young girl you know. Tell her to believe in herself. Tell her that she can slay her own dragons.

Edited to add:
Khanani is also working on a trilogy. Sunbolt is already out, and she tells me that Memories of Ash will be out in May. She's also one of these amazing people who donates part of her proceeds to Heifer International, so if you buy her book, you're also doing a good deed, and if you buy it through the Cannonball buy hole, you're also fighting cancer, so what I'm saying is, BUY HER BOOK, BUY IT RIGHT NOW. You'll be supporting a fantastic author, fighting cancer, and helping to build sustainable communities. It's not often you can help save the world in three ways all at once and read an awesome book at the same time.

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