Monday, July 31, 2023

Review: Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

A retelling of sleeping beauty that flips the original on its head.

T. Kingfisher has several modes in which she operates (I'm a big fan of "mocking paladins (affectionate)", though less keen on "horror, genuinely horrifying" because I am coward), and one of those is "fairytale retelling, but make it dark, vaguely feminist and contains at least one aggressively practical woman". Unsurprisingly, Thornhedge is an entry into that latter category.

I mean this as no insult at all, but you know what you're getting into when you start a T. Kingfisher novel. Maybe not in terms of the plot beats or events, nor the interpretation of the source material if it's a retelling, but in the tone. She has a very, very distinctive voice in which she tells her stories, and opening a new book from her is like greeting an old friend, because as soon as they open their mouth/you read the words on the page, you're back in a familiar, comforting place, even if they're telling you about their new partner you've never heard of, or the job you didn't know they had. In her own afterword to Thornhedge, Kingfisher protests that this book is sweet, despite it being filled with death and biting and curses - which... I agree, though it's not the word I'd use. I'd say "friendly" instead. Or "welcoming", perhaps. No matter how gruesome the murders, how many corpses are made to dance and how many demon chickens there are, a T. Kingfisher story is always a welcoming one, where the narrative voice is clear, and comforting and on your side while you watch the terrible things happen. In this, Thornhedge is entirely like her other fantasy works, and particularly her fairytale interpretations, like Bryony and Roses or Nettle and Bone. I think this is a wonderful thing, especially for an author with an extensive catalogue of work not in a single series or unified world. Once you know you like that voice - which, if it wasn't already clear, I very much do - you can dip your toe into anything in the back-catalogue that takes your fancy and know that, regardless of whether the plot is to your taste or the paladins sufficiently attractive and guilt-ridden, there will be something there, constantly, throughout the reading experience, that will make you happy. It reduces the risk inherent to picking up something new.

It then obviously helps if the story, characters and so on are well-constructed and enjoyable, but luckily she's got that covered too.

Thornhedge is a retelling of the sleeping beauty story, but one that asks "what if the briars, the sleep and the centuries of magic weren't to keep people out, but the sleeper in?". Our viewpoint character isn't the sleeper, but instead the godmother who put her into this position, who, through a mixture of flashback and present time slowly shares with us and a knight errant the series of events that led to her solitary vigil of a tower and a tangled hedge of thorns.

Because it is a solitary vigil, this is, primarily, a novella of few characters. We of course have our protagonist, Toadling, but outside of her, the time we spend with other characters, in memory and in present narration, is relatively brief, and most of them suffer a little for it. The minor exception is Halim, the knight errant, who manages to be endearing to the reader in almost no time at all, just as he is to Toadling. But even he could perhaps have done with some more space and time. We know a little of him, and we are charmed by him, but he lacks the depth many of Kingfisher's secondary characters achieve in other works, simply because he lacks the space to encompass it. Even Toadling is done a little dirty by this, and does not get the impact for instance Bryony does in Bryony and Roses. That being said, what we do get is incredibly sweet and wholesome, while never straying into the saccharine, so it's more a problem of wanting more, than an issue of what we actually get.

The balance between the flashbacks and the present time is very crisply managed, without feeling artificial, and the pacing is well balanced, so we come to the intersection of backstory and story at a very natural point. It never feels like we're being force-fed context and exposition, rather this is just how Toadling is thinking about her predicament. She's intensely inward looking - unsurprisingly, given her solitary situation - which makes it all the easier to achieve, but even so, it's nicely managed to give us those morsels of backstory sufficiently spaced out as to feel worth each wait to get to them.

There's also a pleasing brutality to the world - as is true of many of her books. It never feels gratuitous, like some of the Game of Thrones style attempts at historical "realism" that stray into torture-porn, but rather emblematic of a pragmatism that feels well situated in the period the story is from. Likewise, her fairies are deeply alien things, who do not behave, speak or feel as humans do, and this comes with a cruelty that links them into many of the traditional fairy stories. And yet, it always gets looped back to some essential piece of them, or their nature or their setting in the book, so it never feels forced. They are what they are, and that can sometimes be cruel, but it's never there simply for the sake of it.

And, as ever, there are some really cracking occasional lines dropped in without any warning - "thorns die from the inside out, like priests" hit me out of absolutely nowhere and I was thoroughly unprepared for it, and now it's stuck in my head, likely for the rest of the week. Some of this impact comes from the fact that, for the most part, she's not a prose-forward kind of author, so when you get those little snippets of gold (to horrendously mix some metaphors), they stand out all the greater. Or rather, to borrow Max Gladstone's phrasing, her work is primarily aerodynamic (though with its own, very distinctive style), but this means when it's got a little wing or spoiler or something that affects the flow, it's all the more distinctive for it. 

I'll stop brutalising analogies now, I promise. 

In any case, all in all, it's nice - more than nice, it's a very enjoyable read with some interesting and thoughtful choices about worldbuilding - and very much worth the time spent reading it, but it's not going to set the world on fire or be thrust into the awards limelight. Luckily not all books need to be that - it's a book for the fun of reading, one that you'll blitz through the first time, then put aside, and maybe come back to a few years later when you need something cosy and cheering. And those are just as important as the ones that break your heart or change the way you see the world entirely. Sometimes you need the downtime, the calm and the comfort, to leave you able to appreciate the bright and the brittle and the brilliant. And this is exactly that, done beautifully.


The Math

Highlights: lovable characters, enjoyable subversion of the fairytale tropes, fairies that are inhuman in all the right ways

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge, [Tor, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea