Book Review: Leigh Bardugo’s “The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic”

Leigh Bardugo’s fairy tales are, much like the Grimm Brother’s, not as cheery and happy as Disney would have you believe they are. These tales are, simply put, beautifully terrifying. There’s something dark and twisted about many of them that keeps you turning the pages.

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The Language of Thorns is a collection of short stories from Bardugo’s Grishaverse. Her Grishaverse is seen in the Grisha trilogy as well as the Six of Crows duology. All the stories are fairy tales from the universe.

The following short stories are included in the book:

  • Ayama and the Thorn Wood
  • Little Knife
  • The Too-Clever Fox
  • The Witch of Duva
  • The Solider Prince
  • When Water Sang Fire

Some of the stories were written specifically for the collection, but a few of them were written (and released) in copies of her books. Throughout the book, there are also breathtaking illustrations from Sara Kipin to go with each story. Like, legitimately breathtaking. I’m absolutely in love with every single drawing. As the stories go on, more and more drawings are added to the border of the page, and there’s one big picture at the end of each story.

Below, I give a brief overview of what happens in each story and then talk about what I liked/didn’t like about them.

Ayama and the Thorn Wood

The first in the collection comes from Novyi Zem, a nation in the Grishaverse that can best be compared to the old American colonies or Australia. It tells the story of a forgotten little girl named Ayama who gets sent into the woods by her kingdom to ask the beast in the woods, who also happens to be a prince that looks like a wolf, to stop eating people where she lives. Anyone who’s ever tried to ask him to stop before has not been successful, but there’s something about Ayama that keeps the beast from killing here. There’s not much more I can say without giving away the whole story, but it’s interesting to look at the dynamic between Ayama and the beast.

The first story is also your first chance to see how the illustrations throughout the story become more and more elaborate, until there’s one final picture at the end of the story. I couldn’t find the last page drawing for this story online, but there are other ones that I found throughout the post.

The Too-Clever Fox

This is the first of three stories that come from Ravka, a nation that can best be compared to Russia. If you’ve read the Grisha trilogy, you’ll also notice that this is one of the nicknames that Nikolai Lantsov has. This story tells the tale of a fox who must outsmart multiple animals in order to stay alive. Eventually, a feared hunter comes to the woods that the fox lives in, and the fox decides that he must defeat the hunter before he kills all the other animals. The fox, however, gets much more than he bargained for.

There’s a really clever plot twist at the end that I didn’t even see coming. I really liked it though, and I thought it added a lot to the story.

The Witch of Duva

This is the next story that comes from Ravka, and it’s probably my second favorite story in the collection. The story falls a young girl named Nadya, who lives in the little town of Duva. In the past, the woods of Duva were said to eat young girls, but there hadn’t been a disappearance for a while. Once the disapperance begin again, Nadya begins to expect a woman in her town, Karina, who had recently married her father. Karina mistreats Nadya badly, so she runs off into the woods, where she meets a witch in a cabin and begins to live with and work for her.

There’s not much more I can say after that, but much like the first Ravkan story, I was not expecting the ending of this one. The whole time everything seemed so straightforward, but in the end, it never was. If you were looking for the signs, you would have known better. But on the first read-through, you’ll never know. It’s definitely a page-turner.

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Little Knife 

This is the third and final story that comes from Ravka, and frankly, it’s probably my least favorite story in the book. In this story, a young girl named Yeva is to get married, and her father is the one to decide who it is, even if Yeva isn’t happy with what he wants. Basically, he wants to have a competition to see who will win his daughter’s hand, but it’s obviously rigged towards the richer, better off members of society. Despite this, there’s a poor man named Semyon who, with the help of a river named Little Knife, tries to win the competition and the young girls hand.

There’s a lot of other stuff that goes on in the story, but honestly, even with the pretty pictures, I didn’t like this one that much. Again, there’s another twist ending, although this one wasn’t so much of a twist, but more like an “Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s pretty cool I guess. I can dig it.”

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The Soldier Prince

This is by far my favorite short story in the collection. The story comes from Kerch, a tiny island nation in the Grishaverse that’s based off the 18th century Dutch Republic. It’s basically a retelling of the Nutcracker. It tells the story of a toymaker who’s in love with a girl who he meets through these parties he regularly attends. He creates her a toy that often visits her in her dreams. Instead of falling in love with the toymaker, she falls in love with the dream prince. The story also shows the perspective of the nutcracker, who slowly begins to realize that he can come to life.

Everything about this story, from the art to the characters to the plot, is everything to me. I’m obsessed with it. It’s for sure a must-read.

When Water Sang Fire 

This was a good story to end the book on. It’s the only one that comes from Fjerda, the mountainous nation found north of Ravka. The country is based off of many of the Scandinavian countries. The story follows a mermaid named Ulla, who was once an outcast but after showing off her beautiful singing voice (which gives mermaids there power), she befriends another mermaid named Signy. The two sing together, which makes them very powerful.

The two end up befriending a prince. He’s not the crown prince and is very far back in the line of succession. Despite this, the two girls become friends with him. He invites them to the shore with him, which is somewhere the royal mermaid family goes every year. While on the shore, the prince’s are supposed to find gifts to present to their father. The prince wants to recruit both Ulla and Signy to help him find the perfect present for his father.

There’s a lot more that happens. It’s by far the most complex story in the collection, and I really enjoyed it. And, spoiler alert: fan favorite character The Darkling makes an appearance in this story. So for those of you who miss him, here’s your chance to see him again, this time as a much younger man. It’s really interesting to get a little more background on him, even if it’s not much.

I wasn’t that surprised at the end of this story. I kind of had a bad feeling about the one character from the very beginning, and my suspicions were confirmed by the end of it. Even if I wasn’t surprised, it was still a good ending.

In my opinion, you could read these short stories without having any prior knowledge of Bardugo’s Grishaverse. But if you do have prior knowledge, it makes these stories a million times better.

If you’re interested in any of the stories Bardugo has written, you can get all of them at Barnes and Noble.

But listen to me – once you read one story by Bardugo, you’ll want to read them all. They’re all beautifully wonderful.

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