This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thornhedge will be released August 15, 2023.
I’ve dipped my toe into T. Kingfisher’s middle grade work and her horror, but despite the best of intentions, I hadn’t yet made it to her fairy tale retellings for older audiences. But when I saw the blurb for Thornhedge, I knew it was time to fill that gap. Kingfisher’s Harriet the Invincible (written as Ursula Vernon) is a Sleeping Beauty subversion that has become my absolute favorite read-aloud book with my elementary school daughter. So an adult novella promising a different subversion of the Sleeping Beauty tale? Sign me up!
Unlike most Sleeping Beauty retellings, Thornhedge stars not a cursed princess but the fairy who cursed her. Afraid a dangerous princess would wreak havoc on the surrounding country, the fairy Toadling cursed her to eternal sleep, then surrounded her tower with thorns and kept constant vigil to ensure no princes seeking glory would undo her good work. Which works fine, until the day she encounters a knight who just won’t be dissuaded.
It’s a short novella, with the official page count of 128 doubtless inflated by the customary small pages of Tordotcom novellas, and it splits time between Toadling’s attempts to keep the knight from harm in the present day and flashbacks explaining her background and why she found the curse so necessary in the first place. And in many ways, it shows off the best parts of Kingfisher’s storytelling. The witty banter so often found in her stories is perfect for an encounter between a fairy and a knight, and the entire setup is a fascinating twist of expectations that helps Thornhedge stand out from a crowd of fractured fairy tales. Toadling’s backstory is compelling, and her interactions in the present timeline are a pleasure to read.
But it’s difficult to retell a fairy tale without someone being either malicious or inept, and the competent and likable pair at the fore of the story plunge ahead with the plot even when it seems they should be exploring the obvious alternatives. It’s still enjoyable seeing them interact, but the shadow of other possibilities hangs over much of the second half, robbing some of its impact. That the ending so neatly ties into one of those obvious alternatives doesn’t help matters, leaving the reader with a feeling of “it’s about time” more than anything.
Overall, I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as Harriet the Invincible (which is admittedly written for an entirely different audience and thus has different storytelling techniques available), with a mediocre ending undercutting a tremendous start. But the start is still very good, and the characters are still very fun to follow for a hundred pages or so. Even if the ending isn’t exceptional, it’s a good read.
Recommended if you like: creative fairy tale subversions, banter.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Myths and Retellings, Mythic Beasts, and Elemental Magic, and is a Novella that is Published in 2023.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.