Content Warnings for Thorn include: domestic violence, identity theft, reference to (but no direct depiction of) sexual assault, emotional and physical abuse, animal death, murder, slavery
Intisar Khanani's Thorn is a relatively straightforward retelling of the Grimm-collected fairy tale "The Goose Girl" (you can read more about this tale, and find a link to a full English translation of the text here). Rather than being only loosely inspired by the traditional tale, Khanani keeps the core elements of the plot and makes this tale her own in the details of how she fleshes out the tale, and in the setting she created for it.
Alyrra is the princess of a minor kingdom, and her home life is fraught with anxiety and danger. Thus, it is with a combination of puzzlement, fear, and a trepidatious hope that she learns that the king of a much more powerful neighboring kingdom has requested that she be betrothed to his son. As can be expected given Thorn's closeness to "The Goose Girl," as Alyrra is en route to what will be her new home, her identity is stolen by her traveling companion, and she winds up being given the position of goose girl rather than her proper place as the betrothed to the kingdom's crown prince. Unlike in the original tale, which provides no explanation for it, the success of this identity theft in Thorn is explained by the intervention of a magical enemy to the royal family Alyrra was to join: a Lady who is determined to take the prince in some way for herself.
As someone with C-PTSD in large part due to my experience with domestic abuse and violence, it was at times difficult to read Alyrra's experiences. However, I do think that Khanani did a good job of depicting how Alyrra's trauma has affected her. Alyrra's desire to forge her own path and be truly independent of her abusive family--and the potential abuse (or at least use) of her represented by her arranged betrothal--form the heart of the story. She tries to balance her sense of loyalty and justice (should she try to warn her betrothed of the Lady who threatens him, and the deception of the imposter passing the Princess Alyrra? or should she remain happy in the freedom of her new life as a goose girl?).
I love the setting that Khanani crafted to place this tale. Magic, while very much real and present, is rare and regulated enough to be largely limited as a resource of the privileged. The kingdom Alyrra travels to for her betrothal comes alive as she explores and learns about her new home; the people, food, habits, and politics of the capital city, in particular, are described in a delightfully immersive way. This is also not an idealized fantasy setting; issues of poverty, justice (and the lack thereof), and of class are explored throughout the book.
While I initially felt some dissatisfaction with the ending of the book--feeling it was rather abrupt, and unsettled by what felt like loose ends--as I have sat with it, I have come to appreciate it more. Those unsettling loose ends are actually very satisfying to sit with, reflecting how much more complex the reality of the characters' situation is than a 'happily ever after' ending could possibly encapsulate. I won't go into any more detail than that to avoid spoilers; I'll just say that ultimately Thorn left me wanting more in a good way.
I highly recommend this novel. While I think anyone looking for a character-driven fantasy tale in a richly-developed setting would enjoy Thorn, I think that it is best enjoyed in its context as a retelling of "The Goose Girl." Khanani has managed to take what I have always thought of as one of the strangest of the Grimm fairy tales and flesh it out in a way that contextualizes, explains, and enriches a traditionally rather puzzling story. The princess of "The Goose Girl" is an incredibly passive victim, but the protagonist of Thorn is a young woman who is learning to be anything but passive in her own story.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.