My first read for Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe challenge can be declared a success. I am still very careful with self-published titles but if enough recommendations float my way, I usually give the book in question a try. As far as the usual prejudice against self-published books go, Thorn did really well. Either the author has a knack for spotting her own mistakes or she got herself a copy editor. Either way, well done Intisar!
Published by: self-published, 2012
Ebook: 246 pages
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: “Try not to embarrass us”, my brother says. “If you can.”
- The Goose Girl
For Princess Alyrra, choice is a luxury she’s never had … until she’s betrayed.
Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future.
But powerful men have powerful enemies—and now, so does Alyrra. Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realize, sometimes the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.
Having just read a retelling of “The Goose Girl”, I knew Intisar Khanani wouldn’t have an easy job with me. After all, even if she told the story beautifully and faithfully, I had just read it and wouldn’t be very surprised with her take on things. Except Khanani didn’t worry about any of that, and while clearly similar to Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl, Thorn’s story is entirely her own.
Princess Alyrra lives in the shadows, always hiding from her abusive brother and her heartless mother. She finds more solace with the castle’s servants and with the wind who talks to her sometimes. When a powerful king comes to visit and picks Alyrra for his son’s bride, Alyrra looks at the developments with trepidation and fear. But also with hope. Then, of course, her servant Valka happens and Alyrra’s life is once more turned upside down.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Intisar Khanani’s version of this story was the identity theft commited by Valka. In Hale’s novel, there is mutiny, an uprising that kills all loyal servants and anyone who could vouch for the real princess’ identity. However, in Thorn, the Menaiyan king had already seen Alyrra with his own eyes, has talked to her. Simply pretending to be her wouldn’t be enough for Valka. That’s where the magic comes in. It’s a bold move but I loved what the author did. Valka and Alyrra change bodies, voices, clothes, even scars. Magic also makes sure Alyrra can’t tell anybody about her curse. If she tries, she may just die. It’s a simple solution to one of the fairy tale’s problems but I loved how well it worked. If you die as soon as you speak about the curse, that is a solid reason for keeping your mouth shut and even trying to keep up illusions.
Naturally, Alyrra has to deal not only with having lost who she is and the power that comes with that position, but also get to grips with living in a new body. If I’m honest, I would probably go mad. Now Valka is described as rather pretty – and a redhead of course, because princesses in novels always have to end up special even if they weren’t in the beginning – but even if I switched bodies with a Victoria’s Secret model I would probably lose my mind. Alyrra is confused at first, finding her way around in this new body. She’s also shocked at how differently people suddenly treat her. Valka was rather famous for being a nagging, selfish, greedy little brat and Alyrra – the total opposite – isn’t used to people reacting to her that way. Once she got over her first shock, Alyrra sees this magic as an opportunity. After all, she never wanted to sit on a throne, she never wanted the responsibility or the courtly talk and intrigue. A simple life among people she cares about sounds pretty damn good, no matter her social status.
She gets a job as the goose girl, makes new friends and discovers that not all is well in the land of Menaiya. Social injustices, some strange things happening around the prince, and of course that magical force responsible for Alyrra and Valka’s body switch is still hanging around somewhere… this is where the plot started getting a little convoluted, as if the author wasn’t sure what to keep in and what to cut. Mid-novel, a band of thieves is introduced to represent “street justice” if you like. A young girl is brutally raped and beaten – for no other discernible reason than to show Alyrra that the justice system doesn’t work. The girl was barely properly introduced except for a few throwaway lines and I don’t know how to feel about that.
What I did like was how hard it was for Alyrra to pick up the Menaiyan language. She calls herself Lady Thoreena, but ends up being Thorn because the Menaiyans mispronounce her name. Thorn doesn’t spend a week and can hold conversations about politics. She starts out just like anybody, by learning how to say hello, how to count, how to ask for the most basic things. Especially fantasy novels tend to forget that different languages even exist, and when they do, they usually find a convenient reason for our heroine to learn it within hours or days. Thorn has to clumsily make herself understood, using hands and facial expression as much as her limited vocabulary. This makes it not only more realistic but also helps to show the readers how scary Thorn’s new life really is. Magic threats and hiding who you really are is one thing, but learning a new job, a new language, picking up a new culture is something entirely different. Thorn has a lot on her plate and her growth is a pleasure to watch.
Thorn’s romance with the prince was mostly absent and built on mystery and mistrust rather than conversations and friendship. It wasn’t a tender thing slow to grow but rather one of suspicious glances, careful probing how far each one could go, and small infrequent gestures of kindness. The end felt a little to convenient and predictable to me. I do like that Alyrra had to save Prince Kestrin’s life, but that part came out of practically nowhere and could have used some build-up. Foreshadowing is a wonderful thing, when done right. In Thorn, it wasn’t done at all, it just whacks you over the head with a hammer.
However, despite my misgivings, this was a competent novel, especially since it was self-published. By that I don’t mean that self-published authors are generally bad writers but that it is obvious whether somebody just published their first draft or carefully went over it, got feedback from others, had someone proofread the book, and so on. Intisar Khanani clearly put in the effort to make what she published something she could be proud of. And in my opinion, she really can.
RATING: 6,5/10 – Good