In Bashardoust’s wildly imaginative sophomore novel, lushly drenched in Persian folklore, the question of what exactly makes a monster is revisited by a girl who may or may not be a monster herself.
Soraya is a princess, sister to the Shah of Golvahar, but hidden from the world by her family because of the poison that runs through her veins. For her, pain is power and chains are freedom. She just doesn’t know it yet. Parvenah is a div who has moth wings, very soft skin, and hands soaked in blood. Locked in the cells under the castle, she might be the key to getting rid of Soraya’s curse. Azad is a new friend, eager to aid Soraya in her mission for freedom, whatever that may entail.
The three characters centered in Girl, Serpent, Thorn are complex—layered gray in a way that’s as engaging as it is unsettling. It’s difficult to decide whether one might be an anti-hero or a villain we know too much about not to care for. Girl, Serpent, Thorn is definitely a character-driven novel, and while that leaves the plot to be a bit bare-bones, the trade is one I’m not wholly disappointed by. Soraya’s inner conflict, be it pertaining to herself or those around her, dominates as she puzzles out who she can trust, and if she can even trust herself.
The fluctuating relationships they share are equally complex, spanning years unknown to the reader, yet remaining believable and evocative all the same. The bi/pan/queer rep in this book is as understated as the romance in favor of the fantasy, but no less affirming, and thus must be acknowledged. Soraya’s journey to discover herself is only enhanced by that aspect of it.
The presentation of family in Girl, Serpent, Thorn is massively dark. Lies and betrayal feature more strongly than family ties in almost every character’s journey. This contributes to a theme of instability that is key to the novel’s compulsive readability. Even good intentions reap awful consequences that throw protagonist Soraya into a world on the brink of war with allies who are tenuous at best.
Divs, the Simurgh, the pari… Persian folklore abounds, shaping a unique and fascinating world. The worldbuilding in Girl, Serpent, Thorn is immersive yet vague, sometimes disappointingly so, but augmented by the pitch-perfect prose Bashardoust lavishes her readers with throughout. She excels when it comes to keeping readers on their toes, to the point that, besides the characters, one of my favorite aspects of the novel was the perpetual state of apprehension I entered each time I picked it back up.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn is the fairytale we knew we needed, but haven’t heard till now: a love letter to fantasy readers with poison in their veins and fear in their hearts everywhere.