Before I started reading Thorn by Intisar Khanani, I kept reminding myself to go read the story of the Goose Girl. Because what good is a fairy tale retelling if you don’t know the tale it’s retelling? Well, I kept forgetting, and the next thing I knew I was several chapters into Thorn, and I had no interest in reading something else. This story would do just fine on its own.
Now that I’ve read the book and the Wikipedia page for Grimm’s Fairy Tale, I can tell you that the stories follow the same general outlines. A princess is sent away to a faraway kingdom to get married, and on the way one of the ladies accompanying her changes places with her and makes herself princess. The true princess is made to care for the geese. There’s also a talking horse and some magical wind.
Khanani’s story expands on the magical elements, making the switch more than a mere change of costume and the wind more than a friendly force that helps the princess. But the general outline is the same. I’m sure those who know the story would enjoy the echoes.
But what about readers like me, who don’t know the original? I found it a satisfyingly engrossing and rich tale. I’ve been trying lately to nail down just what sorts of fantasy I most enjoy. When I reviewed Uprooted, I noted that stories that involve a lot of large-scale politics tend to bore me. This book had the perfect blend of personal and political. The story’s focus is always on Princess Alyrra (aka Thorn) and her struggle to figure out what she ought to do and who she ought to be. But her function as princess is treated not as merely decorative. She will wield political power and the choices she makes will affect the kingdom. Her Horse Falada (sob!) continually reminds her of her duty and pushes her to consider how she might fulfill it. Much of the time, Alyrra wants to just remain a goose girl, but that may not be the best way to help the friends who toil alongside her.
The novel concerns itself a great deal with questions of justice—particularly as it draws to a close. When people do great wrong, what is the most moral response? When does justice become vengeance? And what happens when rough justice—thieves’ justice—is a person’s only recourse? Some might find that the book gets a little preachy at this point. Alyrra does, after all, do some preaching. I did not find it so, however, because Khanani gets readers to sit on both sides of the debate. She shows just how beguiling a more vengeful sort of justice is and how costly it is to lean toward mercy. She also shows how sometimes the ideal can be only an ideal, something to strive for even when we cannot live it out.
Another of the book’s delights is the prince. As much as I might feel the sting of what has happened to Alyrra, having her end up with a prince because he’s a prince wouldn’t do much for me. Khanani’s prince, Kestrin, is a fully developed and pleasing character. He makes blunders in his dealings with Alyrra, but they are not the blunders of a cruel, insensitive person. They’re the blunders of someone who genuinely can’t figure out what’s going on or what to do about it. He’s someone I wanted Alyrra to be with not because he was a prince but because he was Kestrin.
Thorn was self-published and seems to have spread through blogs by word of mouth. Ana and Aarti have sung its praises, and I was glad to come across it on Netgalley. It was well worth my time, and if you enjoy fairy tale retellings, whether you know the original tale or not, it may be worth yours too.
I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration through Netgalley.