Pub. date: January 2014
Publisher: Intisar Khanani
Author’s website: http://booksbyintisar.com/
Princess Alyrra does not see the appeal of being royalty. Deprived of the luxury of making choices, with no power to stand up against her cruel brother, calculating mother, and a contemptuous court, she has spent her life avoiding the spotlight. THen she is forced to marry someone she doesn’t even know (for political reasons), and is being shipped off to a foreign land with very little hope that things are going to get better for her. On her journey there though, her party is attacked, and a magical spell switches her identity with another woman. Once she reaches her destination, she is assigned the lowly station of a goose girl, and for the first time in her life, has the freedom to make her own choices: either fight for her rightful identity and subsequent future with this prince she’s never met, or start off fresh in this new life, as Thorn. However, she becomes increasingly aware that there are some dark forces in play in this new kingdom, and becomes acquainted with the prince, and the choice she needs to make is tied to some serious consequences.
Here’s the first reason I loved this book, it’s a retelling of The Goose Girl by the Grimm’s Brothers. I love retellings, particularly fairy tale retellings. There’s so much beauty in playing around with them, especially since a lot of them are written by white dudes, and let’s face it, could use some color.
The second reason I loved this book, and why I also love retellings, is that it is an opportunity to flesh the characters out and give them more dimension. Which is exactly what Intisar does. Alyrra doesn’t just carry out her duties as the goose girl, but she becomes involved in the lives of the other servants she has to live with. Intisar does a phenomenal job describing the political and social unrest, using many scenes to depict issues of classism, how people who didn’t grow up in palaces had so many other odds to contend with. There is a scene where one of her new friends is assaulted, and despite her friendship with the prince and seeking his help, Alyrra is unable to get help from them. Meanwhile, the locals dealt with the attackers by implementing their own form of justice, because they had no expectations that the law would care for those that were underprivileged. The power dynamics and imbalance between Alyrra/Thorn and the prince are also explored in multiple scenes and interactions between them.
Another relationship that gave me both joy and crushed me was Thorn’s relationship with Falada, a strong-willed talking horse (though nobody other than Thorn knows about the talking part). Another character that was just a caricature in the original, Initisar portrays Falada as a loyal companion and dispenser of sagely advice, and the bond between the two of them is strong.
As for the writing itself, the prose is beautiful, even though world building is slow and took me a little while to comprehend. It all flows together. The magical and sorcery aspect isn’t something that leaps out of the page as bizarre, because it is woven into the world and belongs there. Alyrra’s character is a beautiful example of nature vs. nurture, of a victim that ultimately saves herself, as a result of her very best qualities which are the ones that were developed and not inherited.
Here’s my third and probably most favorite thing, the relationship between Alyrra/Thorn and Prince Kestrin. You can watch it develop through their interactions. It’s pretty obvious that he knows she’s the princess, even though he hasn’t quite worked out how her identity was switched. Given all that has happened, it is only natural that Alyrra/Thorn is extremely wary of the prince and basically everyone in the court, which is why she is extremely reluctant to accept help from him, and he doesn’t push her. There’s various points in the story where we get to see Kestrin’s POV, where instead of trying to save her, he tries to guide her to save herself. This relationship between two strangers isn’t one of immediate romance, but one that is a combination of mutual understanding and slowly developing trust. Even in the end, it’s not all neatly tied up, as evidenced by these lines:
“I take a step forward, so that I am barely a handspan away from him, and rest my other hand on his chest, feeling the rise and fall of each breath. “I have no doubt of it,” I say, because I cannot yet tell him I love him, because we need more time without games and deceit between us to find such love.”
This book left my heart singing, so I’m immensely grateful to both Jenny and Memory for recommending it to me. Thank you, friends. I’m of course now an absolute fan of Intisar Khanani and will of course be devouring everything she’s ever written in the near future.