“I don’t know what justice is,” I tell him. “But I am trying to get what I can right.”
The above paragraph is a perfect summation of why I loved Thorn, and of why I love Intisar Khanani so much as an author. In Thorn, as in all her books, she writes about characters who may be in bad situations but who are trying their best. Characters who are trying their best are balm to my frazzled soul in these difficult times, so I am pushing Intisar Khanani’s books on people like they are ebags dot com packing cubes. Consider them pushed upon you. Go get you some.
Thorn is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Goose Girl.” It’s a good fairy tale, full of details with that specifically fairy tale brand of weirdness. In this one, a princess is sent to marry a prince in a faraway land; on the way to her wedding, her chambermaid changes clothes with her and ultimately marries the prince in her stead. The true princess has to serve as the goose girl and comfort herself by talking to the head of her horse Falada, whom the chambermaid has had killed in fear that Falada would tell the truth about her. (Go with it; it’s a fairy tale.) Matters proceed from there.
Thorn does a typically (for Intisar Khanani) sincere and sweet retelling of this story, providing a backstory for the fairy tale weirdness that absolutely works. The maidservant, Valka, has made a deal with a wicked witch to switch bodies with the princess Alyrra, so that the witch can gain access to prince Kestrin. If Alyrra tries to tell what happened to her, the witch’s spell will choke her to death. She takes on the nickname Thorn and bides her time to see if she can save the prince from the witch’s curse.
In the hands of an author whose faith in people is less genuine, Thorn could have been a mess. Huge swathes of the plot depend on people appreciating Thorn for not being a jerk in a world where jerkiness runs rampant. If her goodness had felt forced, or their gratitude untruthful, the book would have fallen apart. But I am particularly in need of books where people are kind because they are trying to be good, even when the circumstances around them may not be conducive to goodness. In Thorn, the characters try to be good because they want to see goodness in the world, but they can only control themselves and their own actions. Which is, you know, pretty hashtag-relatable right now.
Who here still hasn’t read Intisar Khanani? How can I convince you to give her a go?
Oh marvelous Audra of Unabridged Chick for putting me onto Amberlough by describing it (accurately) as “a gay spy thriller that’s allegedly Le Carre meets Cabaret.” This is a terrific and accurate description, although Cabaret is already pretty gay. Please hold while I go down a rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos from Cabaret and then conclude that this piecemeal bullshit is no good and I need to watch the movie again in its entirety. Enjoy this book cover while you’re waiting.
Cyril De Paul is a half-hearted spy for the government of Amberlough, one of four loosely affiliated governments in Gedda. His target (and lover) is Aristide Makricosta, a louche and lovely smuggler and emcee at the Bumble Bee Cabaret. And Cordelia Lehane (don’t you love everyone’s name?) is a dancer at the Bee and a small-time drug smuggler looking to improve her lot. All three of them get caught up in politics when Cyril’s cover is blown and he has to turn spy for the conservative (read: fascist) One State Party that’s threatening to gain control over all of Gedda.
One good thing about Amberlough, a book I enjoyed tremendously and hope you will all read so that the sales are good and we get a sequel, is that it’s one of those books you can tell pretty quickly if you’re going to like it or not. As with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, if you find the aesthetic to your taste after the first few chapters — even if you are thinking “there are a lot of geopolitics happening here” — you’re going to like the book. Donnelly lays out the geopolitics early and then gets on with the aesthetic, which I have seen described most accurately as “vintage-glam spy thriller.” Here are the first four chapters for your delectation and delight.
Another A+ thing about Amberlough is its high degree of sex positivity. Cordelia sleeps with who she wants to sleep with and refuses to feel guilty about it, and the book never asks her to. Aristide and Cyril bang on every available surface and sometimes even have slightly kinky sex, which like — this is weird, but I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered two characters having fun, matter-of-factly kinky sex outside of a romance novel? I rarely enough encounter scenes of characters having fun sex at all outside of romance novels, to be honest. What gives, literature? Amberlough is making you look bad!
And now for a spoilery warning. If you watched Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and had a minor nervous breakdown in the movie theater along the lines of oh my God what are we going to do what are we going to do oh God what are we going to do (not that I did ha ha no), be prepared to feel something similar when you get to the end of Amberlough. Things are not looking swell for our heroes at the end of Amberlough, although the nice thing is that you’ve spent enough time with them to have a pretty fair sense of how thoroughly each of them is going to fuck shit up for the Ospies after the end of the book. But still. Rogue One minor nervous breakdown warning.
In short, I loved this book, and I can’t wait for you to read it too! Get on it so you can come back and talk to me about it!