Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns. — [X]
I watched A Quiet Place yesterday, but my brain is still obsessing over this delectable collection that I’d finished the day before. I’m not here to compare an apple to an orange, I’m just casually going to put it out there: Leigh Bardugo is among those storytellers who can weave magic with their words and I think she’s getting stronger with each spell, er, book.
The stories in this collection are set in Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Having only read (and re-read, and re-listened to, and constantly obsessing over) her Six of Crows duology, I’ve found The Language of Thorns to be a very accessible collection for new readers. I’m sure there are proper nouns that are significant to fans of the Shadow & Bone trilogy, but nothing in this book made me feel like I was looking into a private club from behind a glass wall. Besides which, most of these stories are loose adaptations of existing fairy tales, which helps to ground readers from the very first story.
There are six stories here, organized by their place of origin i.e. the fictional places that Bardugo’s works have thus far spanned: Novyi Zem, Ravka, Kerch, and Fjerda*. Of the six, there are two that I am unsure of. The first is the Zemeni story “Ayama and the Thorn Wood” and the second is the Ravkan story “Little Knife”. Both are about beauty and both have wonderful aspects to them, but I felt like they could have done more to subvert the general views of beauty and worthiness.
The rest of the stories, though, do not disappoint.
- “The Too-Clever Fox” is an animal fable with a neat little twist at the end. It reminded me of stories from The Panchatantra that I used to read as a child, even if those were South Asian and this one is set in a fictionalized Russia. I think the nostalgia may be clouding my brain, but there’s no doubt that it’s an entertaining story.
- “The Witch of Duva” is just *makes a garbled sound of despair and awe*. As I mentioned, I watched A Quiet Place last night, but this story was what kept me up at night, contemplating humanity and monstrosity. It is a delicious–pun intended–twist on “Hansel and Gretel” and is chilling and satisfying in turns.
- “The Soldier Prince” may be my favourite simply because it takes a story I really disliked (“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”) and makes it a creepy, engaging story that plays out dramatically in the city of my favourite murder babies, Ketterdam.
- “When Water Sang Fire” is what comes of Bardugo dragging “The Little Mermaid” to a back alley and, instead of beating it up, gives it brass knuckles and shows it how to throw a punch. The story should leave you with a sense of tragedy, given that it details the making of a villain, but it feels weirdly empowering?
Orrr I just admitted to having something seriously wrong with me, oh well.
The whole collection has the feel of a delinquent (but wise!) grandmother stroking your hair and telling you, look, this is what the world is like. There are flowers, but beware the thorns. It feels like story time in the dark and it was truly enjoyable.
Aside from the writing, the book is beautifully produced. Intricately illustrated by Sara Kipin, each page holds a new detail and the final page of each story has a full spread of illustration. The book almost works like a flipbook animation. I love it so much, I’ve nearly rubbed the gilt of the cover underneath the dust jacket. Together with Bardugo’s words, the book is a piece of art.
*Oh, I guess we didn’t get a story for the Shu Han.