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Literature / The Language of Thorns

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The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic is a collection of short stories by Leigh Bardugo, set in The Grishaverse. Each is a twisted fairy tale. It consists of the following stories:

  1. Ayama and the Thorn Wood: A Zemeni folktale about a young girl who is sent by the king to bargain with a dangerous beast.
  2. The Too-Clever Fox: A Ravkan folktale about a cunning fox who tries to outsmart a hunter.
  3. The Witch of Duva: A Ravkan folktale about a girl with a mean step-mother who lives in a town where young girls mysteriously disappear. She eventually runs away from home and starts working together with a witch to find the person responsible.
  4. Little Knife: A Ravkan folktale about a poor Tidemaker who competes in an Engagement Challenge to win the hand of a beautiful girl.
  5. The Soldier Prince: A folktale from Kerch about a toy that comes to life.
  6. When Water Sang Fire: A Fjerdan folktale about a mermaid with a talent for singing who gets caught in the dangerous politics of the royal family.
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Tropes for this book include:

  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Signy wanted to win her prince's heart. Ulla warned her that Rolfe is ambitious and would not love them unless they helped him become king. Thanks to Signy's actions, she marries her prince, but at the cost of Ulla's ability to change back to a mermaid, the kingdom, and the singing magic that she and Ulla once shared.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Lula in "Koja the Too-Clever Fox" is considered a sweet nightingale. It's noted that even though she's a songbird, she has a beak, which she uses to blind Sofiya the Hunter to save Koja.
  • Bittersweet Ending: A few are there:
    • "The Witch of Durva": Nadya avenges the dead girls in her village, only to learn her father was the actual killer, and died thanks to her revenge spell. She returns to the witch's cottage to learn from her.
    • "The Too-Clever Fox": Koja with the help of his friends is able to end the hunter's threat, but only after being betrayed and losing his friend the bear. Lula remains friends with him, and the animals grow wiser about trusting humans.
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    • "Little Knife": Eventually the river grows tired of being used by Semyon, and Yeva is tired of her father using her to secure a wealthy marriage. The river sweeps her away to a quiet home by the ocean, but as a result Semyon is lynched, her father becomes bankrupt and the town goes to ruin.
  • Break the Haughty: Koja the Fox finds out that others are cleverer than he is and can trick him.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Nadya realizes that her new stepmother was actually trying to protect her from her father, the real murderer of the girls.
  • Deconstruction: "Little Knife" deconstructs the Engagement Challenge in fairytales. Yeva’s father assigns three impossible tasks to the men who wish to marry her. However, Yeva repeatedly asks how these tasks will give her a good husband. These questions are repeatedly met with dismissive answers from her father. In the end, when the river offers her an out, the river is the only one in the story to consider what Yeva wants.
  • Downer Ending: There are a few, but "When Water Sang Fire" takes the cake: Rolfe uses Signy and Ulla to sacrifice an innocent child, ensures Ulla can never become a mermaid again and leaves her to die in the flames. Ulla sings a song of healing and storms, uses it to heal, escape, and destroy Rolfe's newly acquired kingdom. Rolfe and Signy let the singing magic die out and have six children, but it's implied they're only together because Rolfe honored his word after Signy sacrificed Ulla's knife and ability to change back for him. Ulla exiles herself to an island, awaiting Signy's children so she can make bargains with them.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: "Ayama and the Thorn Wood": Ayama chooses to marry the monster she's been sent to kill several times and has secured marriages for her sisters. The beast, for his part, forgives his mother for letting him be locked in a labyrinth, and everyone agrees to lock the treacherous king in the same prison. While he has a chance to escape, it's only a chance. The beast and Ayama rule wisely as monsters, finally earning respect from the townsfolk.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: The fox is hurt on learning the woman with whom he allied to avenge his friend was actually the hunter.
  • Exact Words: Ayama is told to bring the beast's heart to the king. She brings the beast alive, saying that she has won his heart in love, knowing he's not the villain of the story.
  • Eye Scream: Lula blinds Sofiya with her beak to save Koja. Sofiya ends up spending her days at a widows' home.
  • Grimmification: Each tale is a darker tale on fairy tale tropes, with "The Soldier Prince" in particular being a morbid take on The Nutcracker.
  • Happy Marriage Charade: Implied with Signy and Rolfe at the end. Though Rolfe honors his word and makes her queen, Signy is no longer blind to what he is or what she did to secure his hand.
  • Love Epiphany: Ayama realizes she loves the beast because he's the only person who bothers listening to her and treats her like a person.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: At one point, Ulla meets a Grisha man who reveals that he is her half-brother, their mother having had Ulla with a merman, and tells her he has a war to fight in the future. Leigh Bardugo confirmed at an event that the man is the Darkling, and Baghra is Ulla's mother.
  • Magic Fire: In When Water Sang Fire Ulla uses dark magic to create a flame that can burn underwater.
  • Murderers Are Rapists: Implied with Nadya's father. He has her doppelgänger sit on his lap and it's mentioned that he puts his hands up her skirt. Not helped at all by the fact that all of the victims were girls.
  • Only Sane Woman: Kima of Ayama's sisters. She finds out that Ayama bargained for the prince to marry her if Ayama dies on her third task. When the king orders Ayama to face the beast to kill him, Kima is the only one who begs her not to go, saying she doesn't want to marry the prince if Ayama's life is at risk. Ayama reassures her without words that she'll be fine.
  • Rage Breaking Point: In "Little Knife," the river grows tired of helping out Semyon the Tidemaker without receiving any thanks and sweeps away Yeva, the girl he was trying to win, away to live beside the ocean. Yeva doesn't mind because she hates how her dad is bargaining with her life and future out of greed.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • Referenced in "Ayama and the Thorn Wood." Each of Ayama's fairy tales add a dose of reality to the endings, showing that princes who are weak-willed are not worth their challenges, and parents often have secrets. Even though it's clear Ayama and the beast love each other, they still wait the standard time of courtship due to the beast being royalty.
    • Leigh Bardugo mentions this in her Afterword about the father of Hansel and Gretel. She says a man willing to let his children starve in the woods must be weak-willed or evil and rewrote the tale accordingly.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The beast, at least towards Ayama. He's impressed that a little girl comes to bargain with him by telling stories. He listens to her before giving her proof that she faced him, and lets her leave in peace. When she's instructed to bring his heart, the beast agrees to her scheme to expose his father as the rightful saboteur of the crops and the herds. As king, he is very wise and loved despite being a monster.
  • Revenge Before Reason: The witch in the woods warns Nadya that seeking revenge on the girls' killer comes with a terrible price. Nadya sacrifices her fingers promptly, only to learn that the real murderer was her father and not her stepmother Karina.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: When Karina the stepmother sees the gingerbread girl that Nadya created with the witch's help, she merely caresses it and says she's spending the night at Baba Olya's house. This ends up being a good thing since she can claim Plausible Deniability about her new husband being a serial killer.
  • Villain of Another Story: In "When Water Sang Fire," it's implied that Ulla becomes the sea-witch that turns the little mermaid into a cursed human after learning that Rolfe and Signy leave her to die and have six children. Though the circumstances make Ulla sympathetic after what Rolfe did.
  • You Are Worth Hell: Ayama turns herself into a monster before returning with the beast, knowing that she loves him.

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