Friday, 24 August 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Thorn' by Intisar Khanani

I loved this book, absolutely loved it. It’s an object lesson for me, actually, in not pre-judging a book, because this one ticks so many of my ‘no’ boxes: it’s YA, it’s a fairy-tale retelling, it’s first person present tense (“I back away...”, “I gaze at him”), it’s more or less a romance, it’s about a princess who doesn’t quite fit in, it has villains with no redeeming characteristics. Had I known all that beforehand, I would never have touched it and I would have missed a lovely, lovely story. As it was, it popped up on a list of free books, I started reading the sample and just kept reading, couldn’t put it down, in fact.

For those who know their fairy tales, this is a reworking of the Goose Girl story. I didn’t know anything about it, so maybe I missed a few subtleties, but I felt it worked perfectly well without any prior knowledge, and apart from a few oddities (like the talking Horse!) there was nothing in there that couldn't be found in conventional fantasy. One of the great strengths of this book is that the characters all feel truly rounded, so even though they are fulfilling traditional roles (the princess, the prince, the witch and so on) they have great depth and believable personalities. The villains seem at first glance to be simplistically cruel and evil, but they all have enough backstory to make them credible, if not exactly sympathetic.

The magic in the book is quite powerful, but the fundamentals are explained clearly enough to be believable, even the talking Horse. The author has thought everything out very carefully, and it works so well that when the heroine is rescued by magical means, it makes perfect sense. Not that she has to be rescued very often, mostly she is perfectly resilient and self-sufficient, and manages to get herself out of trouble and help others as well. I liked, too, that the magic is simply an integral part of life, everyone accepts it and it’s properly regulated. Interestingly, there is also religion, never explained or central to the plot, but just there, as a natural and perfectly normal thing. There are also social customs which are alluded to without full explanations, like a system of debt between people (if someone helps you out, you owe them a debt of comparable value). At one point there’s a discussion of a gift, and whether it incurs an obligation (a debt) or whether it’s just a gift, freely given, and a decision is reached without any attempt to explain the ‘rules’ of such an arrangement to the reader. I rather like this relaxed attitude towards world-building. Some things just are, and don’t need to be elaborated.

The character of Alyssa, the princess, is central to the story, naturally, and the first person narration makes it imperative that she is both likeable and believable. I feel the author pulls this off magnificently. Of course Alyssa makes mistakes sometimes, but she copes well with the strange events which overtake her, and is strong-minded, caring and intelligent without ever turning into the tedious type of kickass female protagonist so often depicted in fantasy these days. On the contrary, she often feels overwhelmed and suffers a great deal, but she always tries to do the right thing, as far as she can. There is a certain amount of angsting, but it's actually understandable, given Alyssa's predicament.

The plot rattles along very nicely, with some unexpected twists and turns. There are villains, of course, so bad things happen, but there are also friends who help out from time to time, just as in real life. Also realistic is that physical encounters have physical effects - if you roll down a cliff, for instance, or get beaten up, there will be cuts and bruises, maybe even broken bones, and time needed to recover. The climax is a bit of a show-stopper, a wonderful outbreak of magical manipulation with everything at stake, and no real certainty of how things will go. And the author neatly side-steps the clichéd ending. It's a fairy story, so of course good triumphs over evil, but the way that is achieved is refreshingly different. And there's not the obvious happy ever after, either. Rather, there's an acknowledgement that a lot has happened and there are bound to be scars, and a tentative sense of moving forward.

This book surprised me. It may be YA, but it addresses some very profound issues, like the nature of justice, the corroding effect of revenge, questions of loyalty and trust and honesty, and the inner goodness (or not) of people, regardless of what they look like, or their rank. The romance element follows a traditional path but with great originality and commendable restraint. The writing style is eloquently literate, and I barely noticed the use of first person present tense. I had a very few minor quibbles - there were a few places early on where I wasn't clear about relationships or what exactly was happening - but nothing major enough to spoil my enjoyment. A terrific read. Five stars.

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