Getting to the SPIKY Issues in Language of Thorns

 

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Oh boy, I had some pretty barbed thoughts when it came to this book. Well- in a manner of speaking. Because I don’t actually think my views are all that controversial: I liked the stories overall, I thought they were super well written and a lot of them had great characterisation. I even liked how Bardugo used multiple stories as inspiration- that was a sharp idea! Most of all I LOVED the illustration style, all round the page. The artist, Sara Kipin, deserves ALL THE PRAISE. She can have all the bananas she likes from me!

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However, as with many collections, this had weaker tales and I ended up concluding that a few of the overarching themes didn’t sit well (especially in relation to the originals). In order to explain that though, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to get into the spoilery details, so if you don’t want to read those, maybe skip to my rating at the end, cos I’m about to give the play-by-play for each of these stories.

  1. Ayama and the Thorn Wood

Overall, I liked the first tale. The writing was crisp; the narrative structure was tightly wound and slowly unspooled in an intriguing way. I also really enjoyed the stories within stories element- even if I wasn’t totally sold on each of its messaging- like “there are better things than princes”. I mean, yeah, but it feels like a pointed statement about old-school fairy tales and that misses the mark for me. Because this pervasive view throughout is far too simplistic. That’s why- while I liked the aspects of *monsters are not always who you think they are*- this story didn’t totally ring true. And that’s a shame, because it was very close to perfect.

4½/5 bananas

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  1. The Too Clever Fox

I *adored* the personalities in this. I’m a huge fan of characters who live by their wits and the fact that the fox was ugly was a nice touch. The lyrical tone and the writing was splendid from beginning to end. It was complex, felt open to multiple levels of analysis and the ending was very clever in deed. I also liked how it played into the “Russianness” of the setting. It was exactly as it should be.

5/5 bananas

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  1. Witch of Duva

Well, time for some unpopular opinions. I guessed the (rather obvious) twist for this straight away and if you’re at all familiar with a lot of modern story structures then you could too. This was derivative of Hansel and Gretel– only it was clear from the get-go that the monster was the MAN and the heroes were the OLD CRONE and the STEPMOTHER. Wow, never saw that one coming *heavy sarcasm*. Now, while I’ve already mentioned that I liked the things are not as they seem concept, this was the second story in the collection to employ this idea. What makes it dubious storytelling for me is that it’s no fun if you can always guess where things are going because it’s following the formula: man = bad, woman = good. Again, this isn’t a particularly sophisticated reading of the original and only results in an okay-ish retelling (one that overlooks that Gretel is the one to save the day in the fairy tale- but whatever *man wrote it, man bad* and all that grim business). Despite my complaints, I really liked the writing and gave it:

3½/5 bananas

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  1. Little Knife

Again, the writing for this was excellent and I particularly liked how it captured the orality of fairy tales. Sadly, although I didn’t see it coming this time, this falls prey to the same issues as the last story. Some of the lessons are alright; some weren’t. Look, I don’t have a problem with the direction it took with the suitor or father- fairy tales are full of idiots getting what they deserve- BUT why did the protagonist ends up in a sort of purgatory? Sitting alone on a rock in the middle of nowhere till you die is the kind of punishment narratives usually dole out to villains and heroes that have wasted away. It symbolises wasted potential- not a grand victory and certainly not empowerment. The protagonist doesn’t really gain anything- she gets the freedom to sit… and do nothing. Independence isn’t powerful when you end up completely alone. Sure, the dimwit men may have lost her *sparkling* company, yet she’s the real loser here, since she’s lost everything. Unfortunately this left a bitter taste to what was shaping up to be a pretty good course.

3/5 bananas

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  1. The Soldier Prince

Ahh this was better! Straight away, I appreciated how the tone shifted with the “source” of the story (Bardugo bases this around different locations in the Grishaverse and this one takes place in the equivalent of Amsterdam). I worried a little about the downward trajectory of the stories- especially since this starts with a stereotypically evil male villain who feels like they’ve owed a bride- one that happens to be a young child (eww). Nonetheless, I was wrong to judge it on that score (though can you blame me?) and this helped me go back to judging each story on their own merits. In fact, this ended up surprising me in more ways than one. I know I’ve spoilt everything by now- but somehow I don’t want to taint this one- because I adored the final turn! Easily:

5/5 bananas

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  1. When Water Sang Fire

I’d describe this as the Ugly Duckling meets Little Mermaid (three guesses where this is supposed to be set 😉 ). Once more, there was a different style employed- notably a brilliant use of second person that created a striking opening! This was one of the best in the collection for me- and there’s stiff competition! There were a couple of unique touches here as well- particularly the use of magic changing the colour of the pages and resetting the illustrations to be drawn anew. That detail blew me away. And, naturally, I loved the twist in the tale.

5/5 bananas

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Alrighty then- as you can tell I had a mixed experience with this. I really liked a huge amount of this- yet what I didn’t like sometimes got in the way of perfectly good storytelling. It was a shame, because I felt like this collection could have been completely magnificent. Fairy tales are constantly evolving- that’s one of the things I love about them- yet I’ve got to admit I’m a little tired of newer interpretations bitch-slapping older ones. Often to the detriment of the incredible historical heroines who overcome hardship without becoming hermits. There’s a core to the old stories that keep us coming back- warnings and wisdom and endless complexities. And this just wasn’t quite there.

Anyway, my average still ended up being:

4/5 bananas

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So have you read this? Do you plan to? And do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said here? Let me know in the comments!

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61 thoughts on “Getting to the SPIKY Issues in Language of Thorns

  1. Kat Impossible says:

    Okay, so I said I wouldn’t tell you which stories I liked most until your review came out, but now we can compare haha I ADORED the first one actually, because I liked the message with the monsters, but I 100% hear you on what you wrote.
    My other favourites were The Soldier Prince and When Water Sang Fire. I agree on all others, except for The Too Clever Fox. That one wasn’t for me at all. And actually, Witch of Duva might be below Little Knife for me as well. I don’t know. I don’t have the words like you to explain it, but that’s my thoughts on it all.
    A little afterthought on the fox though. Did you know that is Kaz Brekker’s favourite story?

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yeah I was excited to hear what you thought, but hadn’t written the review yet 😉 And I hear you about that- I didn’t have major issues with that one tbh- it was more the stories within the stories. But totally hear you on the monsters part- loved that aspect!
      Oh those two were brilliant!! Ah fair enough- I can see why that wouldn’t be for everyone- even though I did love it. I think that’s fair about witch of duva- one of the things that put little knife below that was I was beginning to get into more of a sulky mood when I hit that part of the collection and wasn’t liking it as much 😉
      I did know that- it’s so cool how she links this in with the world building of her other books! (and really suits the character!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ibizagoldgirl says:

    How beautiful! Oh how I want to run my fingers over this book and open the pages! I’m full on geeking out right now – will I ever lose this wondrous joy and excitement?
    I cannot wait to check out my local library for this! Sorry I didn’t read your post properly (no spoilers for me) but thank you all the same

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anna @MyBookishDream says:

    I’m glad to see that you enjoyed this book! I read The Language of Thorns last year and completely adored it. I agree that the illustrations are completely gorgeous! I loved discovering their complexity as I continued reading each story. Great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this book overall. It did seem like at first your ratings were going down with each story but luckily when you hit The Soldier Prince they shot up again (and I’m glad because I actually think The Soldier Prince was one of my favourites in this collection). Either way Leigh Bardugo definitely ended on a high note with When Water Sang Fire.
    I’m never not going to love Leigh Bardugo’s writing, and I’m never not going to love fairytale inspired stories so this collection was always going to be a win for me, and yes weren’t the illustrations just amazing! This is such a beautiful book. 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  5. klkranesya says:

    I read this last year and really enjoyed it. I think the Solider Prince was my favorite. It was like the Nutcracker turned on its head. I really liked that. I generally liked how all of them took the traditional fairy tale and made the women more empowered for the most part rather than pawns in the story. Great reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Awesome! I’m really glad you liked that one- I thought that was a super clever idea too! Definitely one of my favourites. Personally, I think that how empowered women are in original fairy tales can depend on the story and even the version- they’re not always presented as pawns. I think there’s often a lot more going on under the surface than “women = weak”. I also don’t think that some of these characters are all that empowered- especially with regards to little knife. But it’s cool to hear your thoughts and I’m glad you liked it more on that front 🙂 Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      • klkranesya says:

        It’s interesting because I grew up on the Disney classics of Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty/Snow White/The Little Mermaid. So that’s my formative lens. And while I could look back at those and parse out aspects that may have been more feminist to me as an adult, as a child the overwhelming message that resonated was “be pretty and you’ll win and prince and winning a prince should be your goal in life.” (Oh and he’ll save you too!) I felt like that message did a bit of damage to me and probably others. Although kids today are much smarter than I was (or am). My daughter was not into these types of stories from the get-go, questioning them. It was interesting to see I was like Ariel + Eric FOREVER. Heart. Heart. Heart. And she was like, why should you have to change to be loved? Anyway, I liked Bardugo’s stuff b/c it flips that trope on its head and often doesn’t even have a happy ending. One of my favorites was actually Little Knife. That’s the one with the beautiful woman all the men are doing all these crazy tasks to win her hand, right? And the main guy gets the river to help him and it does at first, but then he goes too far and the river turns on him? If that’s the same one, I read that a bit differently. I read it as the girl representing the earthly feminine, sort of the beauty of mother earth, and if we keep treating her like an object and trying to manipulate her all that beauty will be taken away. I might be reading too much into it. But if my English lit professors taught me anything it was to read into things 🙂 On the surface level though I also read it as sort of a criticism of those beauty wins prince stories or you need a prince to save you themes too. Maybe happiness is being alone? Some people might prefer that. I do always tend to try to find the good in stories, tho. (I do that with people too!) So again, I might be reading too much into it or reading it not how it was intended! (provided we’re talking about the same story, I did read this book a while ago and may be completely remembering both the story and my take on it wrong.) Anyway, I really enjoy your perspectives. They’re always so thoughtful and insightful!

        Liked by 1 person

        • theorangutanlibrarian says:

          Yeah I’d say the same- though I also read some of the originals when I was younger and more recently did a degree course on the subject. The latter is more why I feel the particular line of argument Bardugo takes lacks depth. There are a multitude of version of each of the tales and while I was taught this view in depth, I personally think that fairy tales are deeply embedded into archetypal story structures and that their staying power has something to do with that (rather than fairy tales being just these simple messages of “you need to get yourself a prince!”) For instance, Cinderella at its core speaks to someone finding the courage to escape an abusive situation and often leans into a message of being kind (eg the moral in the Perrault version). And in the case of Little Memaid- well Disney did a right number on that story, since she doesn’t end up with the prince in the original and it’s more about her giving up everything to go to heaven (it’s far more religiously embedded and is about struggling to be a good person- as is the case with a lot of Anderson). hehe your daughter’s response sounds like mine to Grease (tbh I still hate that film)- so I hear you. But I see Disney as interpretations (although simply thanks to the length and the animation there’s more room for analysis than a short story allows) and secondly that is often open to interpretation (isn’t it a good thing that the beast stops being a beast in beauty and the beast- don’t we all have to change at some points in our lives to accommodate other people and just to be able to put up with ourselves? 😉 )
          I do get what you mean about a lack of a happy ending- Anderson has always been my favourite fairy tale writer (I’m not religious, but I do love a tragic ending). Tbh these felt a little less fulfilling than a tragic fairy tale ending- which usually ends in death (I guess I’m a bit more macabre 😉 )
          hehe well if happiness is being alone, then that’s a very Jean Paul Sartre ending Bardugo went for there 😉 Though unfortunately, even if hell is other people, we do need to put up with each other in order to get on in life 😉
          But none of this is to say you can’t like them or feel differently- and I’m always glad when people enjoy something more than I did. I hope I’m just making my view/perspective a little clearer. And of course I think it’s great to read into things- I just found that for me, these stories reach dead end conclusions- whereas in my experience fairy tales often have the power to go further.
          Sorry for going on! I tried to reign myself in a little in the review, but looks like you’re getting an earful now! I blame your super awesome comment for getting the thoughts rolling! 😉 So thank you for sharing all that! I really do appreciate it! I love these sorts of discussions- especially since fairy tales are one of my favourite things in literature.

          Liked by 1 person

          • klkranesya says:

            I like the earful! The best part of literature is that everyone can read it and have different viewpoints. And I think us lit lovers respect each other’s viewpoints! (Unlike ppl in other discussion forums who get upset when someone doesn’t agree with them and just want to argue/talk at each other.) I love different perspectives and learning from others. I am in no way an expert on anything. I prefer to be a perpetual student. And like I said, my fairy tale experience is mostly through the lens of classic Disney, which is definitey what I would call a low bar. I don’t really have much experience with it beyond that. It was not one of my sections of lit study in school or even after. (Although I am recently very obsessed with the podcast Myths and Legends, which tries to tell the *real* first legend/myth/fairy tale. I heard the original Little Mermaid on that podcast and you’re right, Disney managed to make it less awful. 🙂 ) Anyway, this has been really fun and interesting for me. Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed response! And, so I have a question, if Bardugo doesn’t do the fairy tale justice, who would you say does…in terms of a modern writer of fairy tales? I’m curious and would like to read something similar again.

            Liked by 1 person

            • theorangutanlibrarian says:

              Definitely agree with you there! (hehe yes!) I think that’s a great way to put it. (and that sounds like an interesting podcast- hopefully I can check it out if I get time). I’m really glad- thank you for your comments 🙂 I love a good discussion!
              Great question! Honestly, I love good, longer retellings like Bear and the Nightingale and (while it’s not a direct retelling) Hazel wood was so good at incorporating ideas from both fairy tales and gothic novels (it also had mini tales in it and I thought they were done so well). Other than that, in terms of more subversive tales (that I think you’d really like) Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber is right up there. (Also I’m tempted to say try the original translations as well- some of them are really messed up, but a lot of them are beautiful and they’re all fascinating).

              Liked by 1 person

  6. Ola G says:

    The Soldier Prince is my favorite from this collection too – however I positively loath the Little Mermaid derivative 😉 Nice to see the differences in opinion despite the overall agreement! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Awesome- glad you liked that one! And I can understand that- I was sort of expecting to hate that one, given how much I love Hans Christian Anderson and was surprised when I didn’t. Though I totally get why that would be annoying to read (especially if you’re a fan of the beautiful original- which it’s nothing like). Definitely!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. raimeygallant says:

    I haven’t read this, but it does make me reflect on anthologies and collections. Why is it editors let the bad in with the good? I’d rather just have the very best than filler to make a page count. I’d pay more if there was a quality guarantee for every story/essay I was going to spend time reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Jia Xuan says:

    I’ve read this book (for once I can finally say this)! Honestly, this book left me feeling rather disturbed and just bursting with thoughts. All the stories are so honest and terrible and there was a point where I couldn’t accept the ending of Ayama and the Thorn Wood because it was the very first of these twisted tales and my mind wasn’t tuned to accept it yet *weeps. The Language of Thorns is truly thought-provoking and so complex! (I’m glad we all agree that the illustrations are wonderful)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pippin Corbet says:

    So I read this book a little while ago and I have a worryingly rubbish memory, but I *do* remember having similar reactions to the stories. Some were amazing, others missed the mark for me – overall I liked, not quite loved, it. I also remember the illustrations being absolutely stunning – the illustrator can have all my bananas too!! I also agree that there is an annoying trend for retellings to be heavy handed with the kick-ass heroine and evil man idea, to a point where they miss out on the complexities of the original versions (which probably also missed out on the complexities of the original spoken versions). Women and men can be equally good and equally bad, because we’re equally human. Phew. I’ll be quiet now! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ah I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that felt some of them missed the mark! That’s exactly how I felt about it. And yes, the illustrations were absolutely stunning. hehehe I’m sure she’ll be delighted that she can have your bananas too 😉 And yeah I really agree with you- it definitely felt heavy-handed for me. And like you said, the originals are far more complex than they’re often given credit for with regards to this interpretation. Absolutely!!! Thank you so much for your comment! I couldn’t agree more!!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Zoie @ Whisked Away By Words says:

    I really enjoyed this review — I read The Language of Thorns a while back, and I feel like I didn’t focus on each individual short story in my review, but rather my excitement that this was related to the Grishaverse and Six of Crows. 😊 Thanks for sharing your analysis of the short stories!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Vera says:

    I read it and must agree with you – the middle of the book was a bit of a meh for me as well.

    I enjoyed the opening stories and those last two stories. With the last one being my favourite – possibly because it was also the longest and Bardugo had time to do what she does brilliantly – paint her characters, really start telling a story. I thought some of those previous stories were so short and she didn’t get a chance to dive in and explore those characters.

    I also loved The Soldier Prince – I enjoyed the spin of the Nutcracker – how rather than being saved by love, the character got saved by his will – he decided that’s what he wanted and believed in it… the life coach in my screamed in joy reading this… 🙂 🙂

    Lovely analysis of this book, and a completely fair observation of bad = man, good = woman – that also got on my nerves. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      I’m so glad you agree!

      That’s exactly how I felt about it too. And yes I definitely agree- Bardugo leaned into her strengths with the last one. And that’s a great point- I think with more room, it would have created more depth.

      And absolutely agree with you- I loved the idea there- it was quite unexpected and ended up being such a powerful message! Especially cos her view of him was so creepy and possessive. And I really liked the idea of thinking for yourself and acting on it. It worked for me too! 🙂 😉

      Thank you very much! I’m so glad you agree with me there!! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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