The Goose Girl is a character from Grimm, of course, and she’s unfortunate (also of course.) She’s a princess riding her talking horse on her way to meet her prince when her maid forces her to switch places and threatens to kill her if she ever tells the truth. The maid has the horse killed for fear it will talk, the princess is banished to the status of goose-girl, and you’d think that would be the end of the story — but magic winds and natural justice intervene, and in fact the goose-girl winds up with her royal prince after all, and the wicked maid with her punishment.
Thorn, by Intisar Khanani, is broadly a retelling of this fairy tale. There’s the switch between Princess Alyrra and her vicious maid Valka, the beloved talking horse Falada, the dire threat, the magic wind, and the intense focus on justice. But the fairy tale is a skeleton for a broader, richer, more interesting book, one that explores the power differential between rich and poor; one that asks how a goose-girl can love a prince (and vice versa) if there will always be obligation between them; one that demands equal justice for kings and hostlers, men and women — and horses.
I enjoyed this book, largely because of the way Khanani works out some of the knotty problems of power. Princess Alyrra’s fellow workers in the stables don’t have access to the same justice that serves the king and nobles, so they seek it elsewhere, among the rough thieves in the city. When Prince Kestrin talks to Alyrra, knowing and not-knowing who she is, she points out to him that his whims convey obligation — one she refuses out of a desire to keep her newfound independence. There’s an antagonist that doesn’t exist in the original fairy tale, a sorceress with complicated motives, which means that Kestrin is both implicated and vindicated. Only his personal actions can prove his worth.
This isn’t a perfect book. There are several plot points that are messy (the use of magic being one of them) and some that are left as loose ends (Alyrra’s relationship with Red Hawk, for instance.) The larger politics — something that doesn’t interest everyone, I know — wasn’t ever very clearly sketched. But Khanani adds some lovely touches to the book: worship in the temple; moments of safety with friends; the choker of fear that comes with the memory of betrayal; the slow development of friendship with someone you never thought you’d trust. The book is worth reading for these alone, and for other things, too.