Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a gorgeously dark fantasy with a remarkable heroine

Girl Serpent Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust. Image Courtesy Flatiron Books
Girl Serpent Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust. Image Courtesy Flatiron Books /

Melissa Bashardoust’s  Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a lush, atmospheric fantasy with the sort of complex, morally gray heroine we don’t see enough of in YA fiction.

Melissa Bashardoust’s Girl, Serpent, Thorn was originally supposed to hit shelves back in May. But, like many spring releases, its debut was pushed back by the coronavirus pandemic. Thankfully, this is precisely the sort of novel that is worth the wait – and lives up to all the pre-release hype, and then some.

A lush, atmospheric fantasy with an intriguingly complicated heroine, Girl, Serpent, Thorn presents us with a princess who may well be a monster herself.

Soraya has spent most of her life in hiding, thanks to a curse that made her poisonous as a child. Her touch is so toxic it can kill anything she comes into contact with, and as a result, she’s been forced to live an isolated, lonely life. She dreams of real companionship and chafes under the restrictions of her (comfortable) imprisonment, as she’s forced to watch the world – and her brother the shah’s court – pass by from the roof of her palace room.

To what will likely be the surprise of no one – this is a fairytale after all – Soraya is desperate to find a way to reverse her curse. And a new prisoner – a demon held in the castle dungeons – may have the answers she seeks: But to find out, she’ll have to defy her family and face consequences she never could have imagined before.

Granted, that’s a very basic description of what turns out to be a complex and unpredictable plot, This is a story that will take multiple unexpected turns, from subverting established fairytale tropes to exploring issues of family and sexuality. Several of your initial assumptions about this book may well turn out to be wrong by its final pages.

Bashardoust crafts a dark, complex world that feels lush and lived in, from the tangled private garden Soraya spends much of her time in, to the tower in which the residents of Golvahar bury their dead. The influence of Persian myths and folktales is everywhere, and the handy primer about creatures like divs and pariks, and festivals such as Suri and Nog Roz at the end of the novel is both a illuminating additional read.

And, as YA heroines go, Soraya is certainly one for the ages. Given an interiority and three-dimensional status that is all too rare in this genre, she is a heroine that is allowed not just to have flaws, but to be truly morally conflicted. Her inner turmoil is sharply rendered, and she is allowed to be angry in that rare way that feels genuinely cathartic for readers at the same time.

Why are so many young women in dire circumstances expected to look on the bright side or grin and bear it? Instead, Soraya is deeply, justifiably angry, and it’s the sort of rage that speaks to female readers everywhere. And Bashardoust smartly allows her to experience that anger, even to lean into it or lash out with it at various points in the story.

Soraya’s journey to self-acceptance and understanding is, thankfully, not a straight line. Which parts of herself will she choose to embrace or reject? Can she learn to make peace with that same anger and sense of loss? And what sort of person will she become if she does? These are messy questions with complex answers, but they’re also precisely the sort that are worth asking.

Girl, Serpent, Thorn is also that rare YA fantasy that is a standalone novel. (Don’t get me wrong, I love a good trilogy too, but there’s something to be said about knowing precisely the story you’re telling and how and when it should end.) The fact that that Barshardoust’s tale has a definitive endpoint also makes it feel more like the fairytales that the novel itself is so busily upending.

Though we may have had to wait a few extra months for it, this is a novel that more than deserves a place in your summer TBR pile – and likely on multiple best-of lists come the end of the year.

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Girl, Serpent, Thorn is available now. Will you be giving this book a try?