YA Weekend Audio: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Anthology
Publisher: Audible Studios (September 26, 2017)
Length: 6 hrs and 30 mins
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Leigh Bardugo’s The Language of Thorns collects six short stories set in the “Grishaverse”, the world in which her novels like Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows take place. However, these tales are for the most part unrelated to either of those series—a point in this anthology’s favor, in my opinion—and therefore can be enjoyed on their own. It would be more accurate to think of these as fairy tale retellings, each self-contained and often involving their own message and lessons. Personally, I find this format more appealing, as I tend not to get as much out of “side stories” that are tied to (and hence feel “tacked on” to) existing characters and events from a main series.
Filled with dark undertones, many of these stories also call back to familiar classic fairy tales—but with a twist. An in-depth analysis and more of my thoughts on each story can be found below:
Ayama and the Thorn Wood
The king and queen of a small kingdom have two sons. The older one is handsome and well-loved, while the younger one was born monstrous and was hence locked away in a labyrinth beneath the castle soon after his birth. However, the beastly prince managed to escape, and is now terrorizing the village. Desperate, the king offers a large reward to anyone who can stop his monstrous son, and the call is answered by young girl named Ayama, whose family neglects her and treats her more like a servant than a daughter. With shades of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and even 1001 Nights, this opening tale is a good example of the kind of stories you’ll find in this collection—magical, subversive, and adheres closely to the classic fairy tale three-part structure. I was immediately transported to another place and another time, my head filled with evocative images of children sitting rapt and cross-legged by the fireside as they listened to their elders tell them stories. There’s a good takeaway from this one too, a reminder that even the most unassuming lives have value and volumes to them.
The Too-Clever Fox
Even from birth, Koja the fox was showing everyone why he was the cleverest animal in all the forest, convincing his mother not to devour him, the scrawniest and scraggliest runt of the litter. Using his quick wit and silver tongue, he somehow always manages to squirm his way out of certain death. However, one day a hunter arrives at the forest, ruthlessly picking off all the woodland animals. Undeterred, Koja decides to pit his wits against the human, confident that he can help end the slaughter. A cautionary tale against hubris, this story is another twist on a popular archetype often found in fairy tales, that of the quintessential trickster. Koja, however, will find that plot twists are none too kind to clever foxes.
The Witch of Duva
The protagonist of this story is a woodcutter’s daughter named Nadya who comes from an area where young girls from the surrounding villages frequently go missing. When her mother dies, her father is quick to remarry Karina, a spiteful woman whom Nadya secretly suspects might be a witch. This one might be the darkest tale in the collection, which possibly explains why I liked it so much. Again, there are plenty of subversions and twists, and some truly disturbing themes and imagery found here too, even if they are portrayed rather subtly.
This is another story that follows the traditional structure of a classic fairy tale, featuring a greedy duke whose daughter Yeva is so beautiful that the very sight of her instantly causes one to become smitten. When it became time for Yeva to be married, her father decides to hold a competition so that the best man may win her hand. This is a good story for anyone who has ever wondered at the illogical choices made by the typical fairy tale princess character, or why they have to put up with all the crap. The ending to this one is Leigh Bardugo’s brilliant answer to those questions, and it’s just priceless.
The Soldier Prince
The Nutcracker gets a nice retelling in this story, but with elements from the Grishaverse to spice things up. Thematically, it reminded me very much of science fiction narratives about artificial intelligence, with messages about moral and philosophical issues that make us question what makes us human or gives us free choice. Bardugo does not manage to go quite as deep as that, however, though not for the lack of trying. Quite honestly, I felt this one of the more lackluster tales, at least when compared to the stronger offerings that came before.
When Water Sang Fire
Fans of The Little Mermaid will probably enjoy this one, since it draws heavily from that story and offers a different perspective on its villain. It follows a sildroher named Ulla, an outcast among her people on account of rumors that she is half human. Still, she is a talented singer, and together with her friend Signy, the two girls can give rise to wondrous creations through the mere power of their voices. Out of all the stories, When Water Sang Fire is probably the most complex (and it might also be the longest), which is ironic because it did little for me intellectually or emotionally. Personally, I preferred the earlier stories in this collection which held all the charm and magic of traditional fairy tales, whereas this one struck me as rather contrived and a little too “fanservice”. A shame that it ended up being one of my least favorite stories, for I would have preferred ending this otherwise excellent anthology on a higher note.
Still, as far as short story collections go, The Language of Thorns is very good one. I don’t often find myself recommending anthologies, but I will in this case, since I think this book would appeal to a wide range of readers, especially those who love fairy tale-inspired fiction and imaginative retellings. Perfect for both fans of the author’s Grishverse and newcomers alike.
Audiobook Comments: Having listened to all the books in the Grisha trilogy as well as the Six of Crows series in audio format, I am no stranger to the incredibly talented Lauren Fortgang. She’s capable of doing a huge range of voices and accents, and listening to her narrate this book genuinely felt like I was listening to a master storyteller tell creepy fairy tales around a campfire. I would definitely recommend The Language of Thorns in audio, with the only caveat being that actual book contains some art and illustrations, so I would opt for the print edition if you don’t want to miss out on those.