Leigh Bardugo follows up her popular Grisha trilogy and its companion Six of Crows duology with The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, a collection of atmospheric short stories which serve as an excellent introduction to the Grishaverse for new readers while expanding the world for seasoned fans.
The six short stories (including three previously published by Tor.com) are inspired by the cultures found in the Grishaverse as well as traditional fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. In her author’s note Bardugo explains her thought process as she examined familiar fairy tales and pulled at the troubling threads found within.
Every story is accompanied by Sarah Kipin‘s border illustrations which grow around the pages as the tales unfolds culminating in a double page illustration at the end of each story. Two color printing enhances the collection and makes this a stunning addition to any bookshelf.
In “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” a Zemeni tale with nods to Cinderella, The Thousand Nights and Beauty and the Beast, Ayama ventures into the Thorn Wood where she must speak truth while placating a fearsome beast with fanciful stories.
The Ravkan story “The Too-Clever Fox,” follows Koja–an ugly fox–as he learns that sometimes help from a friend outweighs mere cunning when he tries to stop a ruthless hunter.
Bardugo’s answer to Hansel and Gretel, “The Witch of Duva” follows Nadya into the woods where she finds a wondrous witch who can help her discover the truth about her new step-mother–but only for a steep cost.
Beautiful Yeva questions her father’s decision to follow the common fairy tale tradition of setting nearly impossible tasks to choose her future husband in “Little Knife” as Semyon uses his abilities as a Tidemaker to get help from a river to complete them.
The Kerch tale of “The Soldier Prince” explores themes of identity and desire when a demon named Droessen creates a nutcracker soldier who comes to life–but is being alive the same as being real?
The collection finishes with the Fjerdan story “When Water Sang Fire” about a sildroher mermaid named Ulla who dreams of being able to use her singing magic as she chooses, until her attempt to create a fire that will burn underwater ends in betrayal and heartbreak, suggesting a possible origin story for the Little Mermaid’s notorious sea witch.
Themes of feminism and empowerment color each story with heroes and heroines given the chance to choose their own fates and stir the pot, for better or worse. Strong writing, compelling stories, and gorgeous illustrations make this collection a must have for fans of the author and readers eager for new fairy tale retellings to devour.
Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Entwined by Heather Dixon, Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge, Enchanted by Alethea Kontis, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Frogkisser! by Garth Nix, Hold Me Like a Breath by Tiffany Schmidt, The Rumpelstiltskin Problem by Vivian Vande Velde
*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the October 2017 issue of School Library Journal*