“Even if she’s upset with you now, if you do right by her, she will forgive you.”— Melissa Bashardoust, Girl, Serpent, Thorn
This is the spoiler-free review of this novel. If you’d like to read my full reading journal, you can check it over on my Ko-fi.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a magic, fantastic story about legends and the way they are told: we are, and we aren’t, and what we do with out gifts/curses is up to us. Those who loves us will seek to protect us, and sometimes our choices will lead us astray. But if we do right by each other, love and forgiveness are our reward.
Soraya is a strong, vulnerable, and fully formed protagonist who is all those things at once: soft/cruel, forgiving/vengeful, kind/conflicted; and she is allowed to be all of those things. She has a strong sense of who she wantsto be, and that is her guide, but she explores her darker emotions without apology; and it’s so well done. Her turmoil rang true to me, and never felt hollow or like a plot device.
By hiding Soraya away and isolating her, the family both refuse to accommodate her and mistrust her/deny her agency in being mindful. Further down the line we see how fear and shame also heavily contributed to that, but especially in the first third of the novel, I can so well understand the resentment building up in Soraya. It’s no wonder that Azad, showing no fear of holding her gloved hand in his, gains her trust so quickly. Not even her family touch her, take her hands like that. Rather than searching for ways to integrate her, they exclude her completely; even from family life, not just Court. Her mother, Tahmineh, does so to protect her, and shame at her burdening her first-born daughter with this curse in an effort to save her drive her from her side. Nigh on two decades later, it’s all tangled into a web of white lies, secrets kept, and wanting to spare each other the truth. Soraya especially internalises all of her feelings for fear of hurting anyone. It’s such bittersweet irony when it later appears that the full experience of her feelings was the necessary next step to complete the parvik’s gift. Given freely, the parviks’ protection was not a double-edged sword, not power/curse — they never intended for Soraya to be the victim of this blessing. But there was also no instruction manual.
How legends are told: “There was, and there was not.” Many stories have different versions, different endings — and all are true. Just depends on which one you believe. Soraya’s ability is either a gift or a curse, to her, or perhaps rather than gift I should say power. Soraya’s curse/power. She was, and she was not. She was curse, and she was not. She was given power, and she was not. Her mother cursed her, and she didn’t.
I, too, would have followed Soraya in whatever choice she made — for Parvaneh, or for Azad. Human/monster, they are the same in Soraya. Resistance as well as followed Azad and succumbing to temptation would both have been deeply human choices; and it’s telling that in choosing humanity, Soraya found monstrosity marking her, protecting her; allowing it into herself. Not as a curse, but the gift it was always intended to be.
Bashardoust’s writing flows and ebbs along with Soraya’s emotions beautifully; and the novel is by turns expressive in action and dialogue — especially in scenes between Soraya and Azad, with layers of suspicion, and Soraya and Parvaneh, with their slow reconnaissance of another as allies on opposite sides of a war — as well as deeply introspective in Soraya’s isolation throughout the story. The narrative moves from quick turnarounds (serving to intensify the ‘this is too easy’ feeling of dread leading up to the big twist) to harrowing lengths of uncertainty, but without drawing everything out too long so as to become unbearable.
Genre Fantasy & Myth/Fairy Tale Retelling
Narrative voice Third-Person
Pairing Bi Woman/Sapphic
Content warnings Descriptions of violence, Emotional abuse, Gaslighting
Maturity rating 14+