Both sisters read and review the same book, a fairy tale retelling.
This quarter for book club we are discussing Thorn by Intisar Khanani. We've already shared our individual reviews (you can find Mary's here and Elizabeth's here), and now it's time for us to respond to the six questions we cover with each book club discussion. Normally, we have an actual conversation which we record to share in both video and transcript form. However, due to illnesses and unforeseen events, this month we've each written up our answers separately instead.
Mary & Elizabeth Discuss the Book
In what ways is the retelling similar to the original fairy tale? (setting, character, plot, magic, theme)
I was impressed by how closely Thorn aligns with “The Goose Girl.” All of the major plot elements and characters are included: the princess (Alyrra) is sent with a female companion (Valka) to marry the prince of a distant kingdom. She sets off with a cloth with several drops of her mother’s blood upon it, meant to help her in her journey (in the case of Thorn, a blood magic spell her mother paid for; in the original tale, a more mysterious kind of motherly magic). She is gifted a talking horse, Falada, for her journey, as well (although no one knows the horse’s name or ability to talk at first in Thorn). Even the antagonism of her companion towards the princess en route is the same, as are the repeated trips to take a cup to a brook to get a drink (and the companion’s refusal to be the one to fill the cup). Losing the cloth is also the same – although it fell into the stream in the original tale and was snatched from her in Thorn. In both, it is also the loss of the cloth that makes the princess susceptible to being replaced by her companion, who takes her place as princess and forces the actual princess into the role of first her companion and then, upon arrival at the kingdom where she is to wed the prince, to that of a goose girl.
The ‘boy’ who tends geese and attempts to assault the true princess is present in both tales, as is the wind which saves her from him. While Falada isn’t immediately killed in Thorn, the horse does eventually meet the same fate as his fairy-tale analogue, and as with the Falada of the original tale, his head is nailed beneath the gateway leading out of the city to the fields where the princess tends the geese. The mystery of the wind that attacks the goose boy and the talking horse’s head is also what leads to the king questioning the goose girl in both stories, and in both she cannot tell him for fear of her own death. Khanani even keeps the detail of the king telling the goose girl to speak her sorrows to a stove/hearth, and then the king eavesdropping from out of sight to learn the truth. The king decides on the false princess’s punishment via tricking her into stating what the penalty should be for someone who acted as she had, and that penalty is the same in Thorn as in the original tale (the very memorably harsh fate of being placed naked within a barrel studded inside with sharp nails and dragged around through the streets until dead). Finally, the false princess is, indeed, put to death in Thorn as in “The Goose Girl.”
Elizabeth summarized this nicely. The main plot of Thorn follows the original almost exactly. You can match up the main characters and the plot points.
How are the two stories different? (setting, character, plot, magic, theme)
All of the differences between the two tales are more additions to the tale than alterations of it; Khanani keeps the details of “The Goose Girl” and adds to it rather than really changing anything.
A notable difference between the two stories is the insertion of the antagonistic enchantress “The Lady,” who has the goal of destroying the prince’s entire family. While it is Valka who takes Alyrra’s place, it is the Lady who provides the magic that makes this possible. She also magically prevents Alyrra from telling anyone the truth as to what has happened.
Another difference is that the companion-turned-‘false princess’ is not given the penalty she describes in Thorn; instead, Alyrra successfully argues for a more merciful execution for her.
Khanani also does a lot to flesh out the relationship between Alyrra and the prince, Kestrin. While it is implied that they do marry in the end, the resolution of Thorn is a lot more ambiguous than the straightforward fairy-tale ending of “The Goose Girl”: “After the sentence had been carried out, the young king married his true bride, and both of them ruled over their kingdom in peace and happiness” (the final line of D. L. Ashliman’s translation of the Grimms’ tale no. 89).
The addition of magic was a main difference. It gave stronger basis for the swapping of princess and handmaiden, and why the princess wouldn't speak up against it. The introduction of a higher level antagonist behind the handmaiden in "The Lady" also strengthened the story, as Alyrra was thrown into a conflict between the King's family and this enchantress. I also enjoyed the addition of the supporting cast with the other servants that take the princess in as their new goose girl, and become as family to her.
Did the retelling retain enough of the original to be satisfying? Why or why not?
Yes, it absolutely did. I was very impressed by the way Khanani successfully wove in literally all of the elements of the original tale, while at the same time completely making the story her own via the fleshing out of the characters and the setting involved. Thorn arguably sticks the closest to the original tale out of all of the fairy-tale novels we’ve covered as part of the Enchanted Garden Book Club thus far, and yet even while doing so Khanani manages to keep readers engaged, guessing, and surprised. I’m very familiar with “The Goose Girl,” but was still fully invested in finding out exactly how things would play out in Thorn. Rather than making the novel predictable, waiting to find out exactly how each element of “The Goose Girl” would come into play added a pleasant layer of suspense and satisfaction to my experience of Thorn.
I agree that it absolutely was satisfying as a Goose Girl retelling. All the elements were there. It was exciting to go through and see how Khanani would utilize and make sense of each: The handkerchief with blood, the betrayal by companion, a talking horse named Falada, the active wind, confession to the stove/hearth, and the betrayer coming up with her own punishment.
What did the retelling do better than the original?
As is common with all of my favorite fairy-tale retellings, what Thorn does better than the original tale involves fleshing out details of the characters and the setting in a way that makes elements of the original tale that often seem ridiculously inexplicable actually make sense. In “The Goose Girl,” the princess isn’t much of a heroine: she cries over the need to fetch her own water, allows herself to be bullied and replaced without any attempt to fight (or any magical explanation for how her companion might pass for her—they just swapped clothes, not faces). She apparently has magical control over the wind, but yet is so scared of her chambermaid she won’t even attempt to tell anyone she’s been replaced. There’s no explanation at all for the magic of her mother’s drops of blood (which the princess simply loses, anyway), or for the wind that comes at her call, or for the talking horse.
In Thorn, on the other hand, Khanani utilizes the blood magic Alyrra’s mother had prepared for her as a tool seized by the Lady to ironically allow for said enchantress to have power over her. Rather than just switching clothes, with the addition of the Lady’s magic, Alyrra and Valka swap bodies. Alyrra isn’t simply pathetically silenced by her fear of Valka, either; she is magically forced to keep quiet about the swap. Furthermore, Alyrra doesn’t have any magical powers or protections of her own—the wind that ‘comes to her call’ is actually the prince, Kestrin, who is a sorcerer himself and has been visiting her for years in the form of a magical wind (which Alyrra thought was a wind spirit—and which also explains why Kestrin requested to be betrothed and wed to Alyrra in the first place). Falada, the talking horse, is also explained in the context of the setting.
Alyrra’s honesty and strong sense of justice is also a much-appreciated addition to the tale. She ultimately saves Kestrin from the Lady, and does so in a way that also shows sympathy for the Lady’s motivations. Without changing the core tale’s details, Khanani manages to take an extremely passive character and change her into a woman who very much takes charge of her own fate and makes up her own mind about things rather than simply doing what she is told, or what may be expected of her.
Explains all the craziness! Why there is a talking horse, why the wind listens to the princess, why she goes along with the switch. It also gives backstory to support why Alyrra might want to remain as a goose girl.
What gaps did the retelling fill in that were missing in the original?
My answer for the previous question really serves to answer this one as well; the gaps in the original tale are really the questions of why no one doubted the false princess, why the true princess simply went along with the deception without any fight, how the control of the wind came into play, and why the princess would simply be fine with marrying the prince who had so readily married her imposter before. All of that is resolved by Khanani’s addition of more explicit magic in the form of making the prince and his father sorcerers, and giving them a powerful enemy (the Lady).
I agree that one of the biggest gaps is explaining why the handmaiden was able to get away with everything with absolutely no fight from the princess. She threatened that the princess would be killed if she told anyone, but what power would a handmaid really have? Did she have a knife? We just have a passive scared princess who doesn't fight back. In this novel, Alyrra fights back, and it's magic that overtakes her and makes the switch happen and enforces that she can't speak of the act.
Any other thoughts on the story?
I very much appreciated the way Khanani wove issues of systemic injustice into Thorn. There’s a running theme of ‘justice’ only really being for the rich and powerful, and of Alyrra understanding that with increasing clarity and concern as the story progresses. Ultimately, at the end of Thorn, there’s the sense that Alyrra’s story has just begun, as she is determined to address the injustice and inequality that she has witnessed in her betrothed’s kingdom.
I do wish the book had included some sort of content warnings. Khanani added elements of domestic violence, abuse, rape/sexual assault, and murder which were not in the original tale. While I do think that they were, on the whole, powerful additions to the story that made Alyrra and the other characters more understandable and relatable, I do also wish I hadn’t been blindsided by them the way that I was. As a victim of domestic violence and assault, it was a bit jarring to immediately be subjected to an account of the same right from the get-go with no warning. I appreciate the move of more and more authors, publishers, and reviewers to provide content warnings for books; it’s a good reminder for me to do better at providing such for the books I review here on Briarbook Lane, as well.
I really enjoyed the addition of the interactions between the Lady and the prince. The Lady has a feud with the royal family because their ancestors killed her mother in front of her. That made her a sympathetic villain. When the prince gives himself up to the Lady to protect Alyrra, he is put to three tests to see if he is worthy of life, or if he will fall back into the sins of his fathers. Those scenes felt very fairy-tale-esque as well.
If you have any thoughts you'd like to add, we'd love to hear them. Stop by in the Enchanted Garden Facebook Group, or on the Briarbook Lane Discord.
Sisters and writers both. Love fairy tales.
Last quarter book club pick:
Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim
The Bone Spindle by Leslie Vedder