I think at this point Leigh Bardugo can do no wrong. She can write me a retelling of a lamb moussaka recipe and it’ll probably be poetic. Honestly, though, this collection of fairy tales inspired by the different places in her Grishaverse is precious, and I loved every piece (some more than others). Little Knife was a personal favorite, as it reminded me of task-related fairy tales, but thankfully with a female-centric twist (and it also reminded me of Inej in SO MANY WAYS).
THE LANGUAGE OF THORNS
by Leigh Bardugo
Imprint, September 2017
Fairy tales, fantasy
Rated: 5 / 5 cookies
Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.
Travel to a world of dark bargains struck by moonlight, of haunted towns and hungry woods, of talking beasts and gingerbread golems, where a young mermaid’s voice can summon deadly storms and where a river might do a lovestruck boy’s bidding but only for a terrible price.
Perfect for new readers and dedicated fans, these tales will transport you to lands both familiar and strange—to a fully realized world of dangerous magic that millions have visited through the novels of the Grishaverse.
So I don’t know if I’ve said this (right, I’ve totally said this so many times by now), but I absolutely love fairy tales. I love fairy tale retellings. I love it when books make an homage to well-known and not-so-well-known fairy tales. And by all that is good, if I could, I’d totally read all the fairy tale retellings out there. Alas, I am neither vampire nor immortal creature (still waiting for this to happen, to be honest…).
I also totally loved the Six of Crows duology (I’ve squeed about the two books enough times lately). So you see where I’m going with this.
I was going to love The Language of Thorns just by the two loves I mentioned above. And this was way before I started reading the stories. The book itself is paired with beautiful pictures (illustrated by Sara Kipin) and a fabulous cover (I swear the cover gods smiled upon Bardugo’s books, all of them are utterly exquisite, and I’d collect them all if I could). In total, there are six stories inspired by the different cultures in the Grishaverse (one each from Novyi Zem, Kerch, and Fjerda, and three from Ravka that had been previously published)–though these cultures in turn are inspired by the tales we’ve grown up with from around the world.
“Ayama and the Thorn Wood” – It may be because this story was the first, but I wasn’t as invested in this as I’d been with the other stories. It did give me Theseus and the Minotaur vibes, as well as a bit of Scheherezade with Ayama’s “truth-tellings.” Throughout the story, though, I couldn’t help but go back to the teaser quote, “Love speaks in flowers. Truth requires thorns.” And then, because I’ve been quoting SoC lines to my students for the longest time, it also reminded me of something Inej had said in SoC: “Better terrible truths than kind lies.” It’s really awesome to see this continuity with themes suffused into short stories on top of the novel-length stories. The ending was nice, though not entirely unpredictable.
“The Too Clever Fox” – I went into this story grinning, because of the animal fairy tale stories I enjoy reading, the clever fox and the trickster spider are always my favorites. This one has Kanej written all over it, though in essence their spirits lay in the fox and the nightingale. This was not as predictable as the first story, and there were just enough hints thrown into different scenes that left you guessing as to where the true danger lay.
“The Witch of Duva” – The story was inspired by “Hansel and Gretel,” though I swear, every time I read a H&G retelling, they’re always much darker than the original (and the original was hella grimdark already). This one was no different, but with a twist that even made me shudder with utter revulsion. I loved every bit of this story, and it was one of my favorites, hands down. Also, it made me really hungry. Must be all that talk of gingerbread. (Side note: when I finished reading this short story, I actually did make a ton of gingerbread cookies as a result. Mostly as graduation gifts to my students, but definitely because of this story.)
“Little Knife” – This was my favorite story of the six that I’d read. It wasn’t only lyrical and beautifully described (I was already smitten by the description of the damn ghost town, for Saints’ sake!), but it employed one of my favorite fairy tale elements: magical tasks. The story follows a Grisha Etherealki as he attempts to complete tasks in order to win the hand of the duke’s beautiful daughter. Because this is a retelling taking a more modern sensibility, it becomes more female-centric, and I absolutely love how the story turned out.
“The Soldier Prince” – So my shorthand commentary for this story went along the lines of: “I wonder if the clocksmith is going to charm Clara with a soldier princes automaton. And then she falls in love with him instead of the clocksmith. That’ll be a laugh.” Also: “Is this a gay love story? Another one in Kerch? Wait…OKAY this soldier is definitely not picky at all! I am SO FOR THIS.” Honestly, though, while it wasn’t a major plot point (this story really was about the soldier prince gaining self-awareness and his own desires), my favorite part of this short was the fact that Clara ends up being a writer (of children’s tales and smut of all things, lmao).
“When Water Sang Fire” – This was the longest short story in the collection, and it could have been a novella on its own. I would have still read it anyway. The story was a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” though in this case, we’re seeing an origin story of the sea witch, and I am so utterly glad for this origin story. The name Ulla pays homage to Ursula from the Disney retelling, but in Bardugo’s case, I think I love this Ulla more for the fact that there is so much reason for her resentment of those who want more and are willing to do whatever it takes to grab onto their greed. I also love the final illustration in this book, and the title was just so poetic I can’t even.
5 out of 5 cookies! There was absolutely no way I was not going to love this book. I live and breathe fairy tale stories, and this book delivered not only in the storytelling of the fairy tales, but the stories themselves give a great, big nod to Bardugo’s books in the Grishaverse.