REVIEW: Girl, Serpent, Thorn – Melissa Bashardoust

51182650._SX0_SY0_

Author: Melissa Bashardoust (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Fantasy, fairy tale

There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.

As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.

Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming… human or demon. Princess or monster.

I love fairy tales, I love the patterns and rhythms and feel of them. I particularly love reading folk tales and fairy tales from cultures other than Western Europe. Their rhythms and touchstones are so different from those collected by the Grimms or Perrault, and I love seeing the similarities and the differences, and how those patterns weave around each other. This story, inspired by Iranian fairy tales, was wonderfully immersive and evocative, and really very magical. It felt like another of Scheherazade’s stories, with how perfectly it drew the world inside it.

The story follows Soraya, the twin sister of the Shah, who has been poisonous to touch her entire life. A single brush of her skin can kill a living being in an instant, so her family have hidden her away, trained her to stay alone and keep her gloves on at all times, and left her with only a garden full of roses for company. It’s said that she was cursed by a div – a wicked, magical spirit – in revenge for when her mother rescued a woman trapped by the div when she herself was a child. Soraya has believed that her whole life, even as she secretly wondered why the curse was for the first born daughter, not first born child – why was she cursed, but her brother kept safe?

This year, however, her brother returns to the palace with two pieces of news – the first, that he is getting married; the second, that he has captured a div and brought it with him. Despite warnings from her mother that divs only tell lies and manipulate, Soraya decides to ask the div if it knows how to break her curse, and that sets into a motion a chain of events that could destroy her country forever.

What surprised me about the pacing of the story is what I thought would bethe resolution happened earlier in the novel than I expected, just before the halfway point. This made it a little harder for me to predict the pattern of how the story would develop, and deftly put me in a different position as a reader. I wasn’t in the familiar rhythms of the fairy tale any more. The second half was an exploration of how different characters can follow similar journeys but reach different endings and resolutions for themselves.

I really enjoyed how the story explored the way personal choices and principles can lead to different endings, even if two characters are placed in identical situations. This made the latter half of the book fairly philosphical in that respect, as Soraya examines her own motives and those of her family, the divs, and the people in her life. She’s on a journey of self-discovery that addresses all the traumas that have built up over her life and helps her set her own definitions for her life.

One thing I did find frustrating with the story was how many times the characters found out another character had been lying to them. There were lots of hidden secrets, and a lot of moments of “ask them what really happened here”. I’d have preferred if there had been just a moment, perhaps in the middle, where all the secrets were revealed at once and then the second half is moving forward from that and building on that. The constant betrayals and second-guessing frustrated me, but it’s a fairly minor niggle with an otherwise fairly magical and wonderful book.

This is also a queer book, with WLW representation, which was a nice surprise as I was reading it. It’s another way in which this book subverts the tropes of traditional fairy tales, of being rescued and swept off by the prince, to live happily ever after. It sets itself up very clearly to trick the reader into thinking there will be this style of narrative, but then turns the whole thing on its head.

This is a great story, with a really relateable narrative character, that knows its source material but then takes the tropes and plays with them in fun, wonderful ways. I really enjoyed it.

Briefly:

  • A story inspired by traditional Persian fairy tales, which manages to all at once hit all the right tropes and subvert them into something exciting and wonderful.
  • I actually love the cover, but I’m surprised it doesn’t exactly reveal much about the setting of the book. It’s such a richly-described and immersive setting that it seems odd to entirely remove it from the cover.
  • I seem to have an uncanny ability to find WLW YA books, even when it’s not mentioned anywhere in the promotional materials or blurbs. I do find it unusual, in the same way I did with The Binding, that this isn’t promoted more.
  • I really enjoyed the information Bashardoust included at the end of the book, explaining the sources that had inspired her and giving the cultural background to the stories she included. It was really wonderful to be given not only a book that felt so closely tied to this culture, but an insight into the parallels it had within the real world.

Rating: 4/5 – Aside from my niggle about the way information was revealed at times, this was a really magical book and I thought Soraya was a marvellous leading lady.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Girl, Serpent, Thorn – Melissa Bashardoust

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s