Girl, Serpent, Thorn
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Sometimes the princess is the monster.
These fateful words grace the cover of Girl, Serpent, Thorn. They are perfectly true, but they’re also the reason I lifted my Romance Embargo in favor of this book. I may hate romance with the fire of a thousand suns, but I’m a sucker for fairy tales – particularly ones retold from the perspectives of different cultures – and I couldn’t resist such a promising tagline.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a Persian retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” only the princess skips the coma and – as in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” – is poisonous to the touch. The princess, Soraya, lives in Atashar, a world inspired by the Sasanian era of ancient Persia as well as the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), an eleventh-century account of the history and folklore of the Persian Empire. Her twin brother Sorush is the shah of Atashar and lives in different palaces throughout the year, but Soraya lives solely in Golvahar, a palace with a labyrinth of hidden passages and doors. This enables her to stay hidden from the public view without forcing her to live her whole life in her rooms. Owing to her poisonous touch, which kills upon contact, she has few diversions and spends most of her time in her rose garden, visited sporadically by her mother. As she grows up she finds her curse increasingly difficult to control, as it responds to her emotions, and she becomes obsessed with finding a cure against her mother’s wishes. Having been lied to all her life, she is unaware that the curse was actually a div (demon) gift intended to protect her from the Shahmar, a tyrannical but misguided quasi-div bent on ruling Atashar, and doesn’t realize the full consequences of lifting the curse until after she’s done it. Upon lifting the curse, she finds herself with an unforeseen mess on her hands and sets out to fix what she’s broken with the help of Parvaneh, a young parik (a human-shaped div subspecies) and sworn enemy of the Shahmar.
The best part of the story is the curse itself, which starts off as an encumberance but gradually evolves into a source of empowerment. Soraya in the beginning believes that all her troubles are caused by the poison in her veins, but, after removing it, finds herself oddly vulnerable and incomplete without it. Though she removed it in order to be able to touch people without killing them, she later restores it in order to save her family. She accepts the poison of her own free will, and, in embracing it, learns to control it without sacrificing her ability to touch people. Instead of viewing it as a curse she must endure, she bends it to her own purposes and uses it to protect her family and the people of Atashar. She worries that Parvaneh – with whom she falls in love over the course of the story – will reject her after seeing what she’s done, but Parvaneh loves her for who she is, poison and all, and in the end they both leave Golvahar to live in a forest with the other pariks.
One of the things I most appreciated about this book was the lack of traditional romance. There is a love story, yes, but it’s made pretty clear from the beginning that Soraya is bi. She is attracted to Azad, a handsome new soldier in Sorush’s service, but she also harbors an unrequited infatuation for Laleh, her childhood best friend and Sorush’s betrothed. Later she meets Parvaneh in Golvahar’s dungeon and quickly becomes attracted to her while her budding romance with Azad crashes and burns. Though their relationship suffers the same irritating setbacks generally found in YA, in the end they manage an equilibrium where neither of them is dominated by the other. They love and protect each other, but it’s a mutual protection that doesn’t require an overbearing supernatural boyfriend. (No offense, Azad.) It’s so good.
That being said, the book is lamentably predictable. It’s not hard to pinpoint the bad guy. When Parvaneh told Soraya to think about who might be mobilizing all the divs into an army, my first thought was “Gee, wouldn’t it be funny if it was Azad?” (Spoiler alert: I was right.) The “twist” of Azad’s villain reveal wasn’t actually a twist for me because he never seemed trustworthy anyway. Later Soraya learns that Azad became the Shahmar by capturing a div, whose advice he used to acquire power. My first thought: “Must’ve been Parvaneh.” (I was right about that too.) Then she tries to reinstate the poison but doesn’t see immediate results, but this didn’t seem like a huge setback to me because I figured it would take a while for it to kick in, and it would probably reassert itself at the most dramatic moment. (Guess what ended up happening?)
Even with these internal predictive spoilers, however, I’m still glad that I read this book. I loved the cultural background and the world of Atashar. If you’re planning on reading this book, definitely stick around at the end, because the author’s notes are really interesting. (I feel like I might be the only nerd who reads author’s notes, but I love having extra insights. I’m not even sorry.) I’m not familiar with Persian history or mythology, so I will be reading the Shahnameh at some point, though it’s like 900 pages so that won’t be happening this month. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter if you know the history or not. The book explains itself beautifully, and I never had trouble following the terminology. Just maybe smother your internal autopredict with a pillow before you get started, and you should be good to go.