Liz Bourke Reviews Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Girl, Serpent, Thorn, Melissa Bashardoust (Flat­iron Books 978-1-250-19614-9, $18.99, 328pp, hc) July 2020. Cover by Sasha Vinogradova.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is Melissa Bashar­doust’s second novel, after 2017’s Girls Made of Snow and Glass. It’s a delight­ful and energetic book, one that effortlessly avoids any hint of a sophomore slump to present us with a vivid world, a compelling cast, and a narrative that managed to deftly surprise me at least once.

Girls Made of Snow and Glass drew on the folktale inspirations of the Snow Queen and Snow White, though not always directly: its imagery dwelt in snow and mirrors, in the contrast between cold and warmth. Its pair of protagonists, Lynet and Mina, had to navigate the lies and emotional inaccessibility – and abuse – of their respective fathers, before being able to form healthier rela­tionships going forward or to resolve the conflict between them and within their kingdom.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn draws – as the author acknowledges in her afterword – on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th-century story “Rappacini’s Daughter” and on the deep and fantastic well of the eleventh-century Persian epic Shahnameh. The novel’s setting draws strongly on its Persian influences to build a rich, strongly-drawn world of mythical protective birds, demons, legendary wicked kings, and people doing their best.

Soraiya is the Shah’s twin sister. She lives a sheltered, isolated life within the palace in Gol­vahar. Her primary occupation is her rose garden inside the golestan, the palace’s private garden, because plants are the only living things she may touch without poisoning them. She’s hidden away so that people won’t doubt that her brother still holds divine favour, and her mother tells her that her curse was because of a div – a demon.

As her brother’s wedding draws near – a wed­ding which Soraiya cannot attend, because she will never be an openly favoured member of the royal family – Soraiya begins to doubt the truth of the stories she’s been told. There’s a young man called Azad, a soldier in her brother’s personal guard, who looks at her like she hung the moon and acts like she’s a heroine out of romantic leg­end, and he encourages her to question whether or not there’s a way to break her curse. Meanwhile, in the palace dungeon, a captured parik – a kind of div – called Parvaneh may have the answers. But both Azad and Parvaneh have their own secrets, and Soraiya’s choices may determine whether or not her whole family – or even her whole king­dom – survives.

The cover copy made me think that Girl, Serpent, Thorn might be a love triangle, where Soraiya’s options are the steady male human and the tempting female demon. But Bashardoust isn’t interested in anything as clichéd. Azad is a liar whose interest in Soraiya is entirely for his own purposes, and the choices that Azad offers her when his true purpose is revealed are only ugly ones. Parvaneh, meanwhile, may have been trying to manipulate Soraiya in order to get out of the dungeon, but she hasn’t been lying to her – and she and her kindred have suffered at Azad’s hands. That their tentative, fraught alliance has elements of attraction in it seems inevitable.

In Girls Made of Snow and Glass, Bashar­doust was invested in examining the relationship between step-mother and step-daughter, between women whose mutual affection is compromised and complicated by a world that wants to prevent them from forming affective bonds with each other, or wants to cast them as each other’s rivals. The novel also proved deeply interested in the nature of monstrousness and the choices that make a monster out of person.

Despite its very different setting and influences, Girl, Serpent, Thorn concerns itself with similar themes and similar questions. Soraiya’s curse is also her protection, and, stripped of it, she has to find other ways to defend herself. Her relationship with her mother is complicated by the secrets her mother has kept, but her mother kept those secrets in an attempt to protect her. Soraiya’s family, and her relationship with her family – fractured as it is by several kinds of betrayal – are central. This is partly a novel about loyalty, for Soraiya’s rela­tionship with her family is mirrored by Parvaneh’s relationship with her sisters, which is again mir­rored by Soraiya’s relationship with Parvaneh: all of them are marked by betrayal, and all of them require choices about how, and whether, to make restitution – or if one should carry that betrayal through to an ultimate conclusion. It is, in short, an excellent story.

Bashardoust has written a twisty, fascinating, well-paced novel that builds to a conclusion that is more than well-earned. Soraiya is a compelling protagonist, and one whose struggles are very relatable. It’s hard not to empathise with her isola­tion and her desire for a wider world. All told, it’s a very satisfying book, and I really look forward to reading more of Bashardoust’s work in future.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

This review and more like it in the October 2020 issue of Locus.

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