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Spoiler-Free Book Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Early in Thorn, Intisar Khanani’s YA fantasy retelling of “Goose Girl,” the protagonist’s talking Horse advises her with the book’s central theme and conflict:

It is rare for someone who wants power to truly deserve it.

Princess Alyrra is patient, gentle, generous, curious, and honest to a fault. After years of abuse at the hands of her mother and brother, she’s almost relieved to have her identity stolen on the road to the neighboring kingdom, where she is to wed the prince. Alyrra has no desire to rule. If only she could be sure the imposter would not harm the prince, Alyrra would be content as a goose girl, trading hard physical labor for freedom from court politics.

Thorn is a deceptively heavy novel. Despite its colorful cover and accessible writing, themes of abuse, injustice, and revenge permeate almost every scene. Intisar Khanani handles these themes with consideration and respect not only for their weight but also for the reader. I particularly appreciated the nuanced discussion of defensive versus offensive violence. And amid the darkness, there are much-needed moments of humor and beauty, including stubborn horses, a sweet found family that loves Alyrra the way her family of origin couldn’t.

Of the retellings I’ve read, Thorn is among the most faithful to its original fairytale. The cast is broader and more developed, and there is a side plot about human trafficking and thieves guilds. However, the primary plot points largely mirror those of “Goose Girl.”

That isn’t necessarily a problem. Based on a quick skim of Goodreads, I’m one of many readers for whom this was our first exposure to “Goose Girl.” Khanani also worked in a few twists that would have surprised me even if I had been familiar with the inspiration. However, there is one event in the original fairytale that doesn’t make much sense to me in that context, and it made even less sense to me in Thorn. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say I kept waiting for something important to happen as Alyrra passed through the gates, and it never did.

I also wish Khanani had done more to develop Alyrra’s world and to push back against the fairytale trope of characters that are either all good or all evil. The primary villain, who orchestrates the theft of Alyrra’s identity, is complicated and sympathetic, but no other antagonist gets the same treatment. However, I enjoyed the quieter, more contemplative scenes immensely, and I’m eager to see what Khanani writes next.

Thorn is most likely to appeal to fans of trauma narratives that are light on romance, like Raybearer and Deerskin. However, it’s also a beautiful found family story, and I think people who prefer the parts of Disney movies where princesses cheerfully clean the house with the help of their animal sidekicks would enjoy it immensely.

Asian Readathon

This is the first book I finished for the 2021 Asian Readathon. I’m counting it for challenge 1, though it could also fulfill challenge 2 or 3, or all 3 if I only wanted to read 3 books.

Intisar Khanani’s family is Pakistani.

Content Warnings

I’m still conflicted about listing these, but apparently it’s a thing I’m doing now.

Thorn by Intisar Khanani contains physical, verbal, and emotional abuse; violence against animals; torture; human trafficking of children; onscreen threats of sexual violence; offscreen sexual violence; and torture.

More Info

Publisher: Orbit
Paperback Page Count: 528

Intisar Khanani is on Twitter and Instagram.

You can support your local independent bookstore by buying Thorn on Bookshop.org, or grab it on Amazon.

Published inBook Reviews

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