There are stories we all know. The ones with once upon a time and wishing on stars and happily ever afters.
These are not those stories.
It should not surprise anyone that Leigh Bardugo is amazing, and these stories are just as amazing as that. They’re dark and bittersweet and, yes, thorny, but they ring very true. You can feel the echoes of well-known fairytales in their bones, but these tales are different beasts. They are subversive and smart. The morals they have are hard lessons, but they are lessons worth learning. And, despite all the darkness, they still have that sense of magic and wonder all good fairy tales should have.
(That being said, there are some aspects of the stories that are a little mature, so if you are going to read this to young children – which I think you should! – do keep that in mind. I do not by any means think you should coddle young children, but these are fairy tales in the vein of the original Brothers Grimm versions, not the Disney musical adaptations.)
I’ll go story by story for the reviews. (My favourite stories were probably Ayama and the Thorn Wood and When Water Sang Fire. They were the two longest, but I also think that they were the two most interesting.)
Ayama and the Thorn Wood is a Zemeni variant on Beauty and the Beast (all of the stories are set in Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, if you weren’t aware, but her earlier books are definitely not required reading to enjoy this book) except if Beauty wasn’t beautiful with a dash of A Thousand and One Nights. I loved this one for the way it dealt with the idea of monsters and the kings and princes who want to slay them and the way it deconstructed the way that fairy tales end and the melancholy reality of life, but it also had a decidedly badass ending. Rating: G (but the way that Pixar movies are rated G). Suitable for all ages.
The Too-Clever Fox is a Ravkan… Brer Rabbit? Kind of? This (and Little Knife) were the two stories that aligned the least with any well-known fables I can think of, but there are definite archetypes at play. The Too-Clever Fox is a story about an animal whose physical strength is decidedly unimpressive but whose cunning more than makes up for it (see Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Raven, ect) but it took an interesting twist with the arrival of a hunter in the area (although I found it a little forseeable). Rating: G. Suitable for all ages.
The Witch of Duva is Hansel and Gretel but upended and then upended a few more times for good measure. This is one of the more interesting tales, and, at least for me, one of the more disturbing. This is the least G of the stories, but, sadly, has one of the most relevant messages. Monsters do not wear the faces we expect them to wear. Rating: PG/14A. Children under 14 should be accompanied by an adult. Allusions to sexual assault.
Little Knife is the other tale that felt like a take on an archetype and not a particular fable. It’s about a beautiful girl whose father decides to marry her off and sets tests for her potential suitors. A poor Grisha named Semyon decides to try and win her hand, and the local river, nicknamed Little Knife is the secret to his success. Of course, this tale is deeper than the images on the surface. Expect a girl who never got asked what she wanted out of her life, a father whose tests for his daughter’s suitor aren’t really about finding her the best husband, and a boy who never stopped to wonder what motivations a supernatural entity would have for helping him. Rating: G. Suitable for all ages.
The Nutcracker gets a new protagonist in The Soldier Prince, a Kerch story. This was my least favourite story of them all, probably because I just love The Nutcracker so much and I never want to see anything about it changed, but I also didn’t connect as much to or understand exactly what was going on. Don’t get me wrong. This is an excellent story. There is a strong moral in this story about how we gain agency by considering our own desires and how we aren’t really alive if we’re just doing what other people want. My main issues were that (and keep in mind that, for most of my childhood, Clara from The Nutcracker was my idol, so the problem is really me and not the story) I didn’t like that Clara was kind of a brat and I didn’t quite understand one of the elements of the ending. Rating: G. Suitable for all ages.
When Water Sang Fire is the final and, I believe, the longest story. It’s a Fjerdan tale, and it’s basically a Little Mermaid prequel from the sea witch’s point of view. It’s dark, it’s not quite got a happy ending, but it’s not quite a tragedy either, which was the original Little Mermaid story. There’s stuff in here on belonging, on ambition, on whether or not the ends justify the means, and all sorts of other stuff. Plus, it’s just a good story. You feel the dread pull of inevitability throughout it (if you know anything about The Little Mermaid, it’s obvious from early on that this is a villain origin story) but you can’t stop reading and pretend everything works out. We have a prince who can’t be trusted (those pop up a lot in this book and, honestly, I’m here for it), a poor girl who wants to move up in the world, and a girl who just wants people’s appreciation of her gifts not have to fight with their prejudices towards her. None of the characters are straight up heroes, but none of them are completely terrible people either. By the end of the story, they have all done bad things, but we understand why they did them and that these choices are not to be emulated. The moral of this story is a little murkier. It could be that people are cruel. It could also be that bad things come of bad choices, even if you are sure that doing the wrong thing just once can be ignored. Also, the picture at the end of the story! UGHHHHHH! SO GOOD! Rating: PG. Sexual allusions, violence, and dark themes.
The Langage of Thorns is an amazing collection of short stories. From the beautiful illustrations to the haunting and wonderful stories they border, this is a collection you will want to own and read over and over again. I honestly want to read these to my kids when I have some. They’re that good.