Talk about a compelling narrative! Melissa Bashardoust isn’t fooling around. From page 1, Girl, Serpent, Thorn is a wild ride. Soraya is the twin sister to the new shah. She is also poison: her touch is deadly to all living things save plants. Her mother raised her to believe this was a curse from a div (a demon), and as a result, Soraya has been raised apart from the court. Different and distant, she discovers one day that her brother has captured a div and imprisoned it in their dungeon. Soraya believes this div might hold the key to curing her of her curse. But divs are sneaky and treacherous, and listening to it might prove the worst decision of all. Fortunately, she has the smouldering and smitten Azad by her side, a brave man undeterred by her poison. Perhaps with his help she can rid herself of her curse and finally enter the world.
But Soraya is going to learn that the truest treachery comes from stories themselves.
Bashardoust’s adaptation of stories, mythology, and ideas from Persian lore is captivating. It all hinges on Soraya herself, who is a lovely example of an unlikable protagonist—she really just keeps fucking up, and it’s wonderful. She lies, steals, imperils the rest of her family and indeed her entire country, all for a rather selfish reason. Lest you think I’m being too hard on her, let me just say that I understand where she is coming from—she is unlikable but not unsympathetic, and that’s the key. She does learn (slowly) throughout the story as she works through betrayals and setbacks.
I appreciate that Bashardoust isn’t afraid to take big swings in her narrative either. I was surprised by how quickly things escalate, with the Shahmar’s return inevitable from the moment he was mentioned yet much sooner than I might have predicted. In a way this is a kind of nested story, with the first part serving as the prelude to the second, which itself turns into a third story by the end. There are so many layers to enjoy here.
Soraya’s relationships with Azad and Parvaneh are probably the most important ones. In the former case, I like how she acknowledges early on the danger of his idea that he can rescue her. This nod to damsels in distress rescued by charming princes is a good one. Azad’s eventual fate, of course, fits very well with the fairy-tale-esque story that Bashardoust is telling here, where the people closest to you often turn out to be the ones you need to watch the most carefully.
Soraya’s budding attraction to Parvaneh is a joy to read as well. I love how subtle it is, how the attraction is somewhat romantic but also seems to be something else. I love that ambiguity, the idea that they don’t have to figure it out all at once, that they can take it slow. The same goes for Soraya’s monstrousness. I don’t want to go into spoilers, but all I’ll say is her acceptance of who she is by the end of the book is truly special. I love books that preach self-love and self-acceptance!
What didn’t I like? There’s a lot in the style of this narrative that I attribute to it being like a fairy tale, and in that respect I’m willing to forgive certain convenient storytelling shortcuts I might otherwise critique harder. To give you an example, Soraya just seems to be very good at a lot of things despite her sheltered upbringing. She sneaks out of the palace easily to visit the dakhmeh. There also isn’t a lot of time spent on secondary characters. We have a total of like two scenes each with Ramin and Laleh, and their feelings towards Soraya are telegraphed in quite obvious, two-dimensional ways. Again, in a less stylized narrative I would be much less forgiving. In this case, I’m happy to accept that Bashardoust is streamlining the story to allow us to focus on Soraya’s journey and the learning she has to do.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn, then, is far from perfect but it is a vibe, if I may be so bold as to use such a term. The atmosphere and themes of the book stick with you after you put it down. Soraya’s journey has echoes within all of us, even if our touch is not poison—we all make mistakes that hurt those we love, and we all struggle, at one point or another in our lives, accepting the things about ourselves that we can’t change. This is a book about how power isn’t strength, and vice versa, and how you are only truly toxic if you choose to be—but you can still do harm even when you don’t intend it. This is a book about how demons mostly live within, even when they are real without. Finally, this is a book about the power of stories—and why when we use stories to obfuscate the truth instead of tell it, we might do the most harm of all.