Happy Sugar Cookie Day! This week's book review is a sweet romance I hoped to review last weekend to wrap up Pride Month. Alas, life had other plans. It was worth the wait, though.
There was and there was not a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch.
Genre: YA Fairytale Retelling; Queer Romance
Category: Cozy Read
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Rating: 4/5 Stars
Can we take a moment to appreciate the swoon-worthy cover? The pink Fairyloot is even better. If the artwork isn't enough to make you fall in love, the equally beautiful writing will win you over.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a queer Persian retelling of "Sleeping Beauty." There are also hints of "Beauty and the Beast" and "Rapunzel," and Soraya plays the roles of both the damsel and rescuer. I love the dark fairytale vibes and the importance of storytelling to the novel's plot.
Stories always begin the same way: There was and there was not. There is possibility in those words, the chance for hope or despair.
Since Soraya was a girl, her mother has told of how Soraya was cursed before she was even conceived. Soraya is also obsessed with the story of the Shahamar, a long-ago prince corrupted by the powers of the div who transformed into a beast and murdered his family so he may reign. These cautionary tales are Soraya's constant companions, but she'll soon learn there are different sides to every story, and the line between good and evil can get blurry.
She had read enough stories to know that the princess and the monster were never the same. She had been alone long enough to know which one she was.
Soraya spends her days lurking through hidden passages of her castle, afraid to allow herself any misstep. Her greatest fear is that she'll succumb to the div's blood coursing through her veins and cause others pain, so tries her best to be good, sweet, invisible. She doesn't dwell on feelings of anger, rejection, indignance, or jealousy for fear they'll poison her further. She doesn't want to become a monster like the Shahamar.
When a div is taken prisoner and held captive in the castle's dungeon, Soraya hopes the div can prevent that from ever happening.
"Aren't you made for death?"
I love that Soraya has an antihero flavor with potential to go dark-side. She fantasizes about hurting others (and actually does at times) when provoked or curious about her deadly power. But what else would you expect from a girl who's been isolated her entire life and told it's for her own good, that she's too poisonous for others and too much of a risk to her family's reputation, while her brother gets to play the pure and adored monarch?
It seemed to her sometimes that she could only ever be one thing or the other, a mouse or a viper, with nothing in between. And if that were true, then she didn't know which she would choose. Either way brought her misery and shame.
Though naïve at first, Soraya quickly learns from her mistakes, feeling remorse and resolving to do better. She's keenly aware she could be incredibly destructive if she allows herself to be, and it's her decisions that determine whether she is human or monster.
Her decisions are also what bring her blessings in the form of helpful monsters, mythological birds, and a magical garden of thorns.
By the end of the story, Soraya is thinking for herself, making her own decisions, and outsmarting the bad guys. She also learns—the hard way, and with help—that she can be beautiful AND deadly. Thanks to these lessons, Soraya is able to sacrifice what she worked so hard to gain to save her kingdom.
Storytelling becomes a major theme again when Soraya meets her love interests. Each helps her unravel her story, but for their own purposes. And both are only telling her part-truths.
I'm not generally a fan of love triangles. The trope seems like an excuse for the protagonist to be a player without consequences. Girl, Serpent, Thorn is an exception.
Bashardoust's execution makes sense for the characters and their arcs, maintains Soraya's character and growth, and tugs at your heartstrings. While the love interests help Soraya grow as a person, both lie to her and have a messy past.
Soraya's innocence in the beginning, as well as her longing for connection, make her an easy target for the charming Azad. Part of me couldn't help but swoon at some of their scenes—even though Soraya and I both knew deep down that this "Prince Charming" was up to no good.
"You're my favorite story. I feel like I've known you for a long time."
He was the arm of her anger, lashing out when she could not. He was the force of her rage, unbounded.
It was when they let each other see their harsh edges that they both felt real.
“I don't think you're small or insignificant . . . I think you have so much power within you that it scares you, and that you make yourself small on purpose because you don't know what you'll become if you ever stop."
Her relationship with Parvaneh is only slightly less complicated, and not just for the difference in species. They begin as enemies, partner up later on, and eventually develop a sweet relationship where each helps the other heal, grow, and accept themselves. While Soraya couldn't initially trust Parvaneh, she proves her dependability and loyalty over and over.
But tonight she had learned how easy it was to become something cruel and murderous, how much effort it took to be good. To be small. They were the same thing for her, weren't they? [. . .] What she needed tonight was another monster.
“But trust me when I say that if I were you, I wouldn’t shed my armor for the sake of a kind word or a gentle touch. That’s my advice to you, from one monster to another.”
Parvaneh seemed to be made of the night. She wore it like a gown, draped over skin that shimmered in the moonlight [. . .] her wings were free and unfurled. The moth patterns on her face were almost luminescent . . . and her eyes—those hawk's eyes—burned like firelight. Soraya had never seen her look so inhuman—or so beautiful.
That could have been me, she thought. If she had stopped trying to hide the veins of poison under her skin . . . and not been ashamed to look anyone in the eye, then would she have had this same aura of majesty?
All in all, I enjoyed Girl, Serpent, Thorn for its dark fairytale imagery, great execution of a love triangle, fast-paced plot, and the complexity of the characters. My only complaint is it could've used more worldbuilding, but it wasn't so lacking that it made the book unenjoyable. It's a sweet, cozy read with dark imagery that makes for a great standalone retelling.
I would recommend Girl, Serpent, Thorn to readers who are fans of dark fairytales and retellings, enemies-to-lovers, sweet romances, Sapphic romance, and/or femme fatale protagonists.