October 17, 2023

Review: Thornhedge

Thornhedge Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a lovely novella that tells a gentle, almost cozy story, even if it has a few grimdark edges. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) excels in thrusting ordinary people into extraordinary situations. Her characters are not superheroes or anyone with special talents or education just waiting to fall into a situation where they can be put to use. They're flawed, relatable people who second-guess themselves and make mistakes and muddle through as best they can, and usually through sheer persistence and stubbornness they triumph.

Such is the case here with Toadling, the human child swapped out for a Faerie changeling shortly after her birth. She is raised by the "greenteeth" ("slimy swamp-dwelling spirits who devour unwary swimmers") who nevertheless take her in and love her. After fifteen years pass in Faerie, but only a few days in our world, the hare goddess comes to fetch Toadling to learn the ways of magic, or as much as she can, since she is not particularly adept at it. This is so she may return to the mortal world:

"It has been five days, in the mortal world, since you were taken." He smiled faintly. "And so I have another few years to teach you what I can, and then I will send you back to the mortal world so that you may arrive on the seventh day, to stand as godmother to the child left in your place."

This child proves to be Fayette, the changeling daughter of Toadling's human parents, who is a Faerie-inspired nightmare. To put it bluntly, she's a sociopath who begins to torture animals at a young age, and if not actively shoving people down the stairs or goading them into heart attacks, she stands by and watches them die because she thinks it's fun. Toadling tries to control her, but Fayette is growing more terrifying as she grows older. Toadling finally realizes the only solution is to use her water magic (one of the few magics she's somewhat good at) to put her to sleep in the high tower of the castle, and make a thick thornhedge grow up around the tower so no one can ever disturb her.

That's right, this is an inversion of the classic fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty," where the princess is not in the least innocent, but is in fact a beautiful golden-haired monster. And so hundreds of years pass with Toadling, both in human and toad form, guarding the thornhedge and its sleeping inhabitant, until a knight named Halim comes in search of the story he has heard--a fable, really--about the tower and its beautiful prisoner. Toadling tries to talk him out of hacking his way into the tower, but he presses ahead and she ends up going with him, hoping to find some way to stop Fayette for good.

They manage to do so, purely by accident: Fayette wakes, struggles with Toadling, and falls out of the tower to land many stories below, quite dead. The hare goddess returns to fetch Toadling back to the greenteeth, but now that Toadling is freed from her unwelcome burden, she finds she doesn't want to leave Halim behind. So she returns to the mortal world, with the promise of one day coming back to Faerie.

This story could not be stretched out to fill a full-length book, but the novella form is perfect for it. Toadling is a marvelous character, and while the setting could probably have been fleshed out more (it's vaguely European, taking place around two hundred years after the Black Death) since the focus is tightly on Toadling and her dilemma, that doesn't matter so much. I don't think it's my favorite Kingfisher/Vernon story (that would definitely be A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking ) but it's right up there.

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