There’s nothing inherently wrong with this book – which isn’t a great start to any book review – it’s a solid fairy tale and Persian mythology-inspired fantasy book. I think my issue is that I’ve just a couple of books this year that take similar source material or characters and just run with the story better.
Title: Girl, Serpent, Thorn
Author: Melissa Bashardoust
Publisher: Flatiron Books (Hodder & Stoughton)
Publication Date: 7th July 2020
Rating: 3 stars
I just want to make absolutely clear that my 3 star rating for this book isn’t a reflection of it being a bad or unbearable book at all – it’s just that it could have a been a little slicker or, with a bit more padding, context and background, even better.
Our heroine is Soraya, however she’s definitely not your typical princess. Soraya’s skin and touch is poison to anyone around her, so she is kept safely away in one of the palaces of Atashar. She tends her rose garden and waits for her brother (the Shah), mother and the rest of the royal court to visit the palace each spring. She has been trying for years to keep her poisonous skin under control – to never touch anyone, to always be calm and demure, never rise to the bait as Soraya knows full well that she is the most dangerous person in the room. She puts up with so much from her family to keep them safe. But when a new young man, Azad, accompanies her brother and tries to talk to her, and when Soraya becomes aware that there is a div – one of the demon creatures that cursed her – locked up in the dungeon, she starts to think that there may actually be a way to break her poison-curse.
There are so many fairy tales and myths running through this story. The author does a great job of explaining her source material at the end, including the Persian mythic origins for her story (with some changes), which definitely encourages you to read more outside of western mythology. But, whether Bashardoust means to or not, there are moments of the story that feel a little bit Sleeping Beauty, and others that feel (gory) Beauty and the Beast. And quite a lot of Frozen too … But, all of those stories had to be influenced by something originally too.
Soraya is also perfectly and unpretentiously bisexual – it’s never labelled on the page, she just is. And it’s great to come across a teenage heroine that isn’t agonising over who or what she is – she just is. (Plus, with that whole poison skin thing, she’s got plenty of other problems). But there are references later on to in-depth conversations between Soraya and Parvaneh that I don’t feel really happened early on – I would quite happily read a longer book if the padding then added to those kinds of relationships.
My main issue is that I have just read a few books recently that take elements of the story here and go through them in much greater and complex depth. If you want Persian-inspired fantasy, got to the Daevabad Trilogy (although, reading Bashardoust’s explanation at the end has given me a greater understanding of S. A. Chakraborty’s source material). And if you want a heroine that can’t be touched, try The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso (please please please don’t be tempted to read Shatter Me on my account though. I can’t take responsibility for that). The length of Caruso’s novel means she can spend much more time on how the MC reacts to being physically untouchable, and what it means when it’s taken away. And, that doesn’t mean that Girl, Serpent, Thorn is in any way bad – it’s just not as detailed.
As a story, it really picked up towards the end, but often falls into the trap of movement and time and location – it’s hard to tell how long is passing, or how much the MC can actually achieve in the few hours she has. There’s also a lot of convenience – Soraya just happening to come across something that can completely change the outcome – that kind of thing. Again, it doesn’t make the story bad, just a little simplistic in places.
However, I did particularly like that Soraya had lots of opportunities to go one way or another with this story – her relationships with her mother, the rest of her family, what she finds out about her past – there are lots of opportunities to head towards a more villainous side, which makes her a much more interesting heroine.
I read Girls Made of Snow and Glass recently and I do really enjoy Bashardoust’s writing of female characters. They are flawed, but they want to do what’s right. She is also particularly good at writing characters that have the potential to be an absolute villain – and that’s something I really enjoy. But, as with the previous novel, the men certainly aren’t there to be admired. In fact, they all suffer from being weak, or arrogant or cowardly or prideful. It’s not super heavy-handed, but it’s there. And certainly by the end, this is very much a sorority. (Also that cover is so much better now I understand what it refers to in the book!)
Really it’s a 3.5 star read, but I can’t mark it up to 4 stars, so down to 3 it goes …
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.