Girl, Serpent, Thorn

I’m ashamed to admit that when I first learned about Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust – upon becoming a July add-on for Book of the Month – it didn’t immediately capture my interest. It looked like it could be good, but I wasn’t sure if I’d take the time to find out. Thankfully, throughout July I kept hearing great things about it, and I finally realized it was exactly the kind of book I needed right now.

As soon as it arrived in my August box, I was eager to dive in. And wow, it exceeded my expectations! This is one of the best books I’ve read this year!

If you’re interested in fairytale retellings in which the princess is also the monster, this book is for you. If you’re open to that story also incorporating Persian mythology, then what are you waiting for? Go get Girl, Serpent, Thorn right now!

Summary

Girl, Serpent, Thorn centers on Soraya, a princess – or rather, shahzadeh banu – locked away in a palace in Persia (aka Iran). It takes us way back in time to the Sasanian era (between 224 and 651 CE), before Islam arrived to the region. Instead, the religion is Zurvanism, an extinct branch of Zoroastrianism. This religion, mixed with ancient Persian mythology, forms the basis for the novel’s world… Sorry for the mini historical theology lesson; back to Soraya.

Why is Soraya hidden away while her twin brother becomes shah (king)? From the time she was born, she’s been under the curse of a div (demon), with poison running through her veins. Any living being she touches dies instantly. She’s a danger and maybe even a burden to her family, so she exists mostly alone, away from anyone she could harm.

But she longs to break free. When a div is captured and imprisoned in her palace’s dungeon, she decides to see if the div can undo her curse. With the help of a new soldier, Azad, she ventures into the dungeon to find out.

From here, Girl, Serpent, Thorn careens through a series of shocking revelations and plot twists. I can’t tell you more for fear of spoilers, but I can say it’s a wild ride that keeps you guessing until the very end.

Review

There is so much to enthuse about here! Girl, Serpent, Thorn really is that good.

One of the main reasons I decided to buy this book is because of its incorporation of Persian mythology. I seem to be on a mythology kick lately; I just enjoyed Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar, which draws on Hindu mythology. After this, I have several more fantasies featuring various mythologies lined up in my TBR. Mythology is a great way to learn about different cultures, and it opens up your world to so many new ideas and customs.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn immerses readers in a world rich in Persian mythology. Divs, pariks, the Shahmar, and the simorgh are all major players here, and they come straight out if Iranian culture. Even the novel’s beginning, “There was and there was not,” is inspired by Persian oral stories; it’s much like the “Once upon a time” that we know in western culture. While none of these concepts were familiar to me before, they added so much color to this novel and made it feel original and imaginative.

There’s an incredibly valuable author’s note at the end of the book that provides more detail on these different characters, religious holidays, and pronunciation. However, let me warn you: There’s a bit of a spoiler back there, so maybe wait until you’re halfway through before you read too much. Luckily I’m obtuse and totally missed the spoiler despite reading it, but if you’re sharper than I am, watch out. Read at your own risk.

Soraya is unique among princesses in that she’s also, in some ways, the monster here. This is a concept that plays out throughout the novel, often blurring the lines between good and bad, or between hero and villain. The “good” characters make mistakes and hide secrets. The “bad” characters have some redeeming qualities, or at least something about them that makes you feel sorry for them or understand their actions a bit. Soraya isn’t a perfect princess, nor are the villains completely evil and devoid of love. It’s continuously thought-provoking.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is also fast-paced, action-packed, and full of surprises. Just when you think you know how things will play out, the rug comes out from under you, revealing a new twist. Though if you pay close attention, some of these twists have subtle foreshadowing much earlier on. Those moving lines between hero and villain are among the shocks. And as Soraya changes location across the chapters, we see her encounter new characters who treat in unexpected ways, work through new challenges, and move in circles until she gets it right.

Soraya evolves a lot, which something I love to see in characters. We see her devolve in some ways, but also see her grow stronger, smarter, and more resilient. Other characters like Azad and Parvaneh evolve in their own way, too, keeping this novel intriguing until the end.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn also offers up some LGBTQ+ representation. Without saying too much, I will highlight that Soraya is a bisexual woman. Her sexuality is never called into question by anyone, and it’s nice to see it fully accepted. Well done.

Although it’s categorized as YA, Girl, Serpent, Thorn doesn’t feel especially young to me, as other YA novels can. It’s a book I’d recommend to everyone, regardless of age or gender.

Final Thoughts

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is one of the best books to come out in 2020 so far. It’s powerful, thought-provoking, and magical, and it’s something I’ll re-read and encourage others to read. And now that I know what an amazing author Melissa Bashardoust is, I’ll need to check out her first book, Girls Made of Snow and Glass.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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