The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
Published September 26, 2017
The Language of Thorns is a charming and beautifully illustrated collection of short stories set in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Drawing inspiration from established fairytales and folktales, ranging from “Beauty and the Beast” to “Hansel and Gretel”, Bardugo crafts her re-imaginings with care, adding elements of the fictional cultures of Kerch, Ravka, and Fjerda, and providing resolutions not always sweet, but far more satisfying than happily ever after.
Part of the magic of this short story collection is in the illustrations by Sara Kipin. Working with an alternating limited colour palette of teals and reds, Kipin frames the pages of each story with patterns and designs that change and grow over the course of the tale, culminating in a final two-page spread at the end of each story. I really can’t say enough about how beautiful these illustrations are, particularly in the last story “When Water Sang Fire” where reds and teals entwine for a vibrant and otherworldly effect.
I have to admit that fairy tales have never been my thing. I know some of the basics sure, but as a child I was more taken with D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths than with Hans Christian Anderson or the Brothers Grimm. I haven’t read many re-tellings for exactly this reason, but if there was ever an author who could win me over, it would be Leigh Bardugo. Sure enough, this wildly inventive collection has me singing a different tune. Like the King spellbound by Scheherazade, I would happily read any fairy tale Bardugo deigns to tell!
The six stories highlight Bardugo’s keen storytelling ability, as she takes the tropes and stock characters at the heart of most fairy tales and twists them in unusual ways. If there’s a common theme or lesson to take from these tales, it’s a cautionary one about the dangers of perception and the folly in underestimating others based on their appearance alone.
My one criticism is that I thought the short stories where Bardugo draws inspiration from existing properties and twists them were more effective than her original tales. “Beauty and the Beast” variant “Ayama and the Thorn Wood” may wrap up a little neatly, but it offers an underestimated heroine and storyteller who wins a place and position through courage and clever words.
My favourites of the collection are both retellings. The evocative “When Water Sang Fire” draws inspiration from “The Little Mermaid” for a tale about betrayal, love, and ambition, while “The Soldier Prince” retells perennial Christmas favourite “The Nutcracker” from a unique point of view, in a tale that meditates on selfhood and what it means to be alive. In contrast, when I began writing this review and tried to remember each tale, I completely forgot about original story “Little Knife”.
I also have to put in a quick word for the diversity Bardugo incorporates into this collection. Zemeni tale “Ayama and the Thorn Wood”, features a dark-skinned protagonist, and other stories follow the example set in her Six of Crows duology by involving queer characters in organic ways.
This beautifully illustrated collection contains something for absolutely everyone. No knowledge of Bardugo’s previous books, or of fairy tales and folktales, is required to enjoy The Language of Thorns, although a passing familiarity with the classic stories that inspired this collection may help readers to appreciate the unique spins she puts on characters and tropes. Despite not being a fan of short stories or of fairytales in general, The Language of Thorns swept me away with its combination of sheer storytelling craft and accompanying illustrations that set my imagination aflame. I imagine other readers will be similarly enchanted.