Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize what I look for in a book: a layered, lyrical, nuanced story with an intelligent heroine acting with quiet strength and conviction. Coupled with a similarly intelligent and flawed hero who isn’t a prince charming – and a love story that isn’t about how being told how beautiful she is or with her being distracted by his gleaming pecs. We’ve lost that in the last decade or two with the advent of the Twlight type YA fiction; with Thorn, I found a welcome return to a story that makes me feel deeply but not in the teenage hot and bothered way. Rather, here is a book that doesn’t need illogical actions bordering on stupidity, over-the-top action sequences, or deus ex machina coincidences/misunderstandings/etc. to propel a story. Just solid writing and an exceptional story. Ironic, then, that this is an exquisite retelling of the Grimm fairy tale The Goose Girl.

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Story: Princess Alyrra lives in a kingdom of poverty: of the spirit and the wealth. When a King of a very powerful neighboring kingdom arrives with an offer of marriage with his son, she sees no choice but to follow, if only to be rid of her abusive brother and callous mother. But the prince has an ancient enemy and Alyrra becomes embroiled in her trap: during the trip to the kingdom her identity is stolen by her companion and she is under a geis not to reveal the truth. It’s a chance at freedom finally – a choice to finally live free as she is assigned to work with the geese and stables. But it could also mean that she is leaving the prince open to a horrific fate at the hands of her doppelganger if she does not reclaim her position.

The book is beautifully told, lyrical and quiet and never showy. Perhaps the only quibbles I had was that it stayed too close to the tale of the Goose Girl and could have strayed further. But at the same time, the elements of the fairy tale are so cleverly woven as to marvel that such a deep story could be made out of such a simplistic foundation.

The pathos of the writing had me enthralled since the first few pages. This is a love story but it is so subtle as to told in what wasn’t said, rather than any dialogue or exposition. Every scene with Alyrra and the Prince was fraught with tension and yet so cleverly and beautifully written, always just enough said and so much left unsaid as to reach an understanding and yet still want more. For once, I didn’t feel the writer manipulating the reader and instead respected that she trusted us with the intelligence to not need the plot/romance bludgeoned over our head.

The characters were all wonderful – from the main leads to all the minors. There are no good or bad guys, evil or great, no knights on white chargers or beautiful but feisty heroines who do stupid things so the hero can save them. Each character is acting on their own conscience and that makes the book really worth the reading. I wanted to follow all, to know what was going to happen to them and explore how they think and live.

The writing is very clean and easy to follow. The descriptives are enough to explain but never dip into purple prose. The plot is straightforward and yet highly nuanced. There may not be one of those happily ever afters where everything is fixed at the end; and yet it is highly satisfying where the story finishes. Author Khanani resists the temptation to pull punches but does make thoughtful statements about justice and responsibility; indeed, we would not have a fairy tale without a morale.

This is a book I highly recommend for those who enjoy a beautifully written story that isn’t about a soppy romance, heavy handed plotting, or constant action sequences. I finished this in about 3 hours and it was worth every minute I invested. Reviewed from an ARC provided by the publisher.

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