Title: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Illustrator: Sara Kipin
Release Date: September 26th, 2017
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Short Stories,
Pages: 281 (hardcover)
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.
Inspired by myth, fairy tale, and folklore, #1 New York Times–bestselling author Leigh Bardugo has crafted a deliciously atmospheric collection of short stories filled with betrayals, revenge, sacrifice, and love.
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.
My First Thoughts:
I found this book before going a movie with my boyfriend and his family. We needed to kill some time, because we showed up way too early, so we went into the Barnes & Noble near the theater even though they all knew how dangerous of an idea that is for my wallet. That’s where I found this beautiful book on one of their display stands, and when I flipped through it and saw all the illustrations I knew there was no turning back. I love fairytales and folk lore and when authors try to reimagine them for themselves, even though it’s normally a hit or miss with most stories. I had never read the Grisha novels, though I own the first one, so I was unfamiliar with the author, but I just prayed that her wordsmithing would live up to the beauty of the illustrations.
There’s so much to say for these stories and each one was so different that I feel like I can’t make a lot of generalizing comments about them, so I’ll talk about each one separately.
Ayama and the Thorn Wood
There are not too many stories out there that focuses on the classically ugly or monstrous as main characters. In fact, in young adult fiction especially, the main characters are normally portrayed with unrealistic beauty or overly mentioned mundane features that get too much attention. The first unique thing about this story is not the monster prince that must be reasoned with or killed, but that the one sent to meet him is a young woman who had spent her life on her hands and knees, overlooked, ugly, and not allowed to speak her mind. Ayama is a girl that has all the features that society would deem undesirable, with a voice that made people cringe, and that no one even dare look at, but a sharp mind that could tell when something didn’t seem quite right. She had a self-sacrificing personality because of the love she had for her sister, but she found a line she could not cross and instead leaped to a different line.
Another unique thing about this story is that it’s not your normal romance. Most stories with even a hint of romance spend a lot of time commenting on appearance and whether the characters find others attractive. In this case, there may have been a few passing comments but they almost all went unnoticed. Instead, this romance was built not on appearance but on understanding. The characters grew to understand and appreciate each other for who they were, but it was so carefully done that it almost escaped my notice until the end and it was a very happy surprise.
I loved the transformation of Ayama as her story progressed and how the beastly prince played a subtle role in her transformation. At first it was quiet, the author distracted with beautiful imagery and the stories that Ayama told, but the louder Ayama got the more apparent that her character was changing until the very end. And all it took was for one person to listen to her and showed that they actually cared about what she said, which sends a very powerful message. Just by listening to the ideas of a person you give them the power to fully realize themselves, especially if it is an individual who has spent most of their time being ignored. So next time someone is spilling to you their ideas and inner most thoughts just give them your undivided attention and see where they go.
The Too-Cleaver Fox
Again, I liked that this story focused on a character that was ugly and treated poorly for it, but also cleaver and helpful towards others. This one was vastly different than its predecessor in both tone and direction. There’s not a whole lot I can say about this story without giving anything away, but it was still very interesting though not as moving as the last one. Instead, this was a simple tale about an ugly fox trying to save the forest, even though most poked at his appearance, from a silent and impossibly deadly hunter.
This one almost fooled me, but I saw the plot twist before it was revealed in the end. That’s not saying that the author did a poor job with the twist, it was just something that I picked up as I read the fox’s reasons, thoughts, and interpretations. If I hadn’t noticed the smaller details then I might have been surprised, but even though I wasn’t the reveal was still pretty intense and had been gripping the pages as I read.
I really enjoyed the fox’s character. He was a bit of a trickster, but he always followed through on his word and he had a good heart. It was different because too often people write tricksters that either resemble Puck or Loki, but the fox while very cunning also did things for the greater good even at the expense of himself.
The Witch of Duva
Out of all the short stories, this one surprised me the most and for the first time in a while I was truly shocked by the outcome of a story.
This one felt like it drew some from the Hansel and Gretel story but only just barely. There were two children and their wood-carving father, a witch in the woods, and tasty treats but that was about it. The rest of the story either drew from other versions of the folktale that I’m unfamiliar with or came straight from the author herself. All the details that author added to the story made it come to life in a way that distracted me from all the little details pointing to the climax of the tale.
Sometimes there are just clear cut antagonists in a story, but here the antagonist was not actually the villain which also made this story unique. Let me explain, an antagonist is a character that antagonizes the protagonist and pushes them in a specific direction. However, not all antagonists are villains. For instance, in Ponyo, Ponyo’s father is her antagonist because through his actions he pushes her to rebel and try to become human, he isn’t the villain, thought, because all of his actions were meant to protect her and not harm her. And in The Witch of Duva, there is a case of a clear antagonist character and an unclear villain, which led to my surprise and love for this story.
This was truly an interesting story that had an ending that, while not surprising, took me a while to realize. It was unique because it ended with two characters that you might not expect at first glance and it ended in a rather quiet affair compared to the rest of the story.
It always bothered me to read stories in which the hero/heroine has to win the hand of their partner. Most of the time the partner does not like the idea or the hero/heroine at first, but they grow to love the other as the challenges go on. That just always annoyed me because I would never want my partner to go through the trials of Heracles to prove their love for me, because there are simpler things that have such a greater impact and mean more to me. Which is why I liked Little Knife, because through the whole ordeal Yeva keeps questioning the logic behind her father’s trials to find her a husband. I also enjoyed this story because the winner is someone you least expect, but someone Yeva chooses.
What I liked most about this story is something that I can’t actually talk a lot about without giving anything away. But I will say that I enjoyed the quiet ending because it was different but not unexpected due to the nature of the story. Pay close attention and you’ll see why this is one of my most favorite endings in all of my reading experience.
The Soldier Prince:
This one took me a little longer to read than the others, not because it was boring or because the pacing was too slow. No, I think the pacing was quite fine and I enjoyed the build-up for The Soldier Prince, but there was a lot more backstory to process for this one that I decided to take my time on it (also didn’t help that a new game that I had been waiting for a year for came out right when I started this story). This story also had a lot of imagery that I wanted to take my time in imagining for myself. Normally, the level of imagery in this story would’ve been too much for me but the author handled it rather well because she was describing the imaginings of a child, which tend to be rather grand for one of the character’s upbringing. Some people may have issues with the pacing in this one, but it does pick up once the story moves to the present setting.
While reading The Soldier Prince, I couldn’t help but think back to The Nutcracker which I’m quite sure is where the author drew some of her inspirations for this story. I always ran hot and cold on The Nutcracker, it never quite felt right to me. But I enjoyed The Soldier Prince because I felt like it had a more natural ending than the story of its inspiration. There are romantic elements in this tale but that is not the focus, the focus in the need and want for freedom, something that is different from what you’ve always known. For some people, it’s to travel the world and go where the wind blows. For others it’s to get lost in their imaginings and create something they think is better than their own reality. For others still, it’s to find out who they really are without the words of others telling them.
The best part of this story is how different it ended and the message that it spoke. It was profound and thought-provoking. And at the end I had to simple sit back and let it all sink in.
When Water Sang Fire
This one I believe will be a hit or miss to a lot of people. It’s much longer than all the others and is written a bit differently as well. When Water Sang Fire is a story that had a lot of build-up, like the previous story but a bit more, before it got to the main point. The world building here is a bit different because it is heavily seeped in magic and a type of magic most readers may not be familiar with, so the author had to build this magical part of her world quickly but steadily as to not lose anyone along the way. This process of creating led to a slow start that may make some readers fell a bit dragged. Personally, I really enjoyed the world building in this story because it is much different than any of the mermaids I’ve run across in fiction. However, for those who want to get to the chase, it’ll read like a long incline up the hill, but once you get to the top the pacing really picks up and by the end you’ll be tripping over yourself to finish.
Everybody is familiar with The Little Mermaid and there are plenty of retellings of that tale, but most of them never explain how the sea witch becomes this villainous figure we all know her as. When Water Sang Fire is a story that finally gives readers a wonderful journey of how the sea witch came to be, and it’s one that is so sad and lonely that it may make you pity the sea witch. I know that by the end, I felt terrible for Ulla and the life that was thrust upon her but she willingly chose.
Of all of the stories this is the longest but most beautifully written. The author did a wonderful job creating this magical setting and the characters that lived there while also moving the story along. Some of the magic may be confusing to some readers, but if you pay attention and take your time it should make itself clear. Also, some of the characterizations of the main characters seemed to be a little forced to make Ulla the more sympathetic character. I’m not saying that she doesn’t deserve sympathy, but some of the actions of the other characters don’t quite make sense to me based on their behavior leading up to that point. Otherwise it’s a beautifully told story that brings more personality to a two dimensional character a lot of us have known since we were kids.
Overall I loved how beautifully these stories were woven together. None of them overlap with each other and each tale has a new set of characters to follow, but the author does a wonderful job bringing these characters to life and make you care for each of them within so few pages. Each place and character is a bit different from the other, but the one thing that remained the same was the theme of each story being that not everything is as it seems. Some of the stories show this theme very clearly, in some of the others you have to sift through to the very end to see it. Overall I think this is the best book that I’ve read in a while, not saying that the previous ones were bad, but the craft of this book was amazing. From the characters to the places, it read as if there was actual magic in each word and picture. I’m not sure how the author normally writes, but her stories here read like actual folktales told around a fire, they were lyrical with a smooth flow that took you straight to the end.
Also, the illustrations were phenomenal. Sara Kipin did a wonderful job bringing the stories to life through her illustrations. If you pay close enough attention, you can see how the illustrated outlines told the story as they went, adding little details from the story on every page. And the final pictures at the end of each story made me stare at them in wonder for minutes at a time before I went to the next one. If I could, I would totally by the illustrations loose so that I could get them framed and on my walls. The style, the colors, the details were just all so breathtaking and I want to show them to everyone.
Overall, this was a wonderful collection of beautifully told stories with illustrations to match! Most of them are quick reads that you can finish in a single sitting without losing any of the magic or feeling too rushed. Each story is different and the book offers a diverse cast of characters that you can connect with. I would recommend this story to anyone who finds themselves in a reading slump or loves fairytale retellings!
Ayama and the Thorn Woods: 5
Ayama and the beastly prince stole my heart. A tale of two outcasts, hated and ignored for what they were born as, come together in the most spectacular way and help the other out unknowingly. This was romance I didn’t know I needed until I found it. It’s definitely a story about embracing who you are and the importance of listening to the inner thoughts and ideas of others. You never know how much such listening can transform a person.
The Too-Cleaver Fox: 4
While simple and not quite like the stories it’s sandwiched between, it’s still an interesting tale about a trickster trying to do what was best for the greater good. This story was unique for its portrayal of its fox character. Normally trickster characters, and especially foxes, are handled like Puck or Loki. However, here the fox while cunning and sly, never goes back on his word and does what he can to help others.
The Witch of Duva: 5
My favorite of all the short stories here. This is a haunting tale that will send shivers down your spine and make you sit at the edge of your seat. Beautifully written and wonderfully unexpected ending. This is definitely the Hansel and Gretel story I needed as a child.
Little Knife: 4
Of all of the stories in this book, I would have to say that this one is my least favorite. There is nothing wrong with this story. In fact, it is a quick and quaint read that I would recommend to everyone. But when compared to all the other stories here this one just doesn’t hold the same magic and beautiful story telling like the others did. It’s still a good story that I feel a lot of people will like, it just has superior company.
The Soldier Prince: 4.5
This one is definitely one to take your time one because it spans a vast amount of time and jumps around between a few of the characters. The build-up is slow, but the imagery and the life the author breaths into this story are fantastic. Like The Witch of Duva this is a creepy and eerie tale that’ll give you goosebumps!
When Water Sang Fire: 4.5
This one is the longest of all of the short stories and it has the longest build-up too. There’s a lot of world building and time spent understanding the magic of this story that might lose some of the readers. I believed that the pacing was just right, but others may not agree and think it’s too slow before you get to the ‘good’ stuff. Overall, it’s an interesting story full of magic and heartbreak.