Girl, Serpent, Thorn
by Melissa Bashardoust
There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.
As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.
Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming . . . human or demon. Princess or monster.
If that beautiful cover wasn’t enough to make me interested in Girl, Serpent, Thorn, the fact that it’s both f/f fantasy and Persian-inspired certainly was.
Soraya is a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch – plants are the only thing she can’t kill – and her curse means she’s spent the majority of her life hidden away in the palace, away from court society, while her twin brother rules. When her brother is saved from a div attack by a young man from a lowly village, and the div is imprisoned in the dungeons, Soraya has the chance to speak to a creature not unlike the one who cursed her and discover if there’s a way for her curse to be lifted.
But all is not as it seems. Secrets have been kept from Soraya, and they might just turn her into a traitor…
I really enjoyed the first third of this novel. It’s so clear that Bashardoust is a fan of fairy tales because the importance of stories, the ones we tell each other and ourselves, is at the centre of Girl, Serpent, Thorn. Though Soraya is poisonous to the touch we know she would never intend to do anyone harm, but the people around her don’t necessarily know that and she’s forced to reckon with the fact that she is the villain of some people’s stories. There’s something quiet, reflective and angst-ridden about that first third – and you all know how much I love my quiet fantasy – that made it feel like such a whimsical, melancholic tale.
Once the action started, the book lost its charm for me and the writing lacked some of the maturity it initially had. So many problems were far too conveniently solved for the sake of pushing the plot forward, to the point where one chapter opened with ‘Soraya’s mother told her this thing once, so she knew exactly how much time she had’ – it’s not word for word, but you get my point – and it got a little frustrating. Sometimes the writing felt as though Bashardoust didn’t trust her readers to read between the lines.
Everything happens over the course of a few days, which meant I could never quite get invested in Soraya’s relationships with anyone. This was especially disappointing for me because I was so looking forward to the f/f romance, and yet I didn’t feel like we got enough scenes between Soraya and Parvaneh at all – which feels especially shady from a book that has been widely marketed as an f/f fantasy. I mean it is an f/f fantasy, there is an f/f relationship, but it’s barely in the book, I didn’t find it particularly well developed and I don’t think Soraya and Parvaneh had much chemistry either.
The main reason this book was so disappointing for me is that it had such potential. Perhaps one of my main issues is that, the older I get, the less I seem to enjoy YA fantasy; I think there’s a lot of excellent YA fantasy out there, and I also think Girl, Serpent, Thorn would be a very cathartic read for angry, queer teenage girls, but I am primarily a reader of adult fantasy and, the more of it I read, the harder it is for me to be completely satisfied by the majority of YA fantasy.
Ultimately I loved a lot of what Girl, Serpent, Thorn had to say, about fairy tales, monsters and the parts of ourselves we should embrace to live happy lives, but the closer I got to the story’s climax, the less I enjoyed the writing which initially felt so fresh.