Holly Black & AG Slatter – The Brooklyn Rail
(Tor Books, 2022)
patch of thorns
I grew up reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi where I often pretended to be the hero, somehow transcending (or negating) my own genre in order to center myself in the story. . There were few if any inclusive voices at the time, but I could imagine myself in Mordor or Earthsea, the Courts of Chaos, or riding dragons in Pern. As I got older I moved away from mostly fantasy and into ‘literary’ fiction, horror and graphic novels, but when a friend gave me a collection of Angela Carter stories, I I was thrilled to find not only great writing, but also girls and women at the center of their own stories. I wish I had Holly Black and AG (Angela) Slatter’s books to read when I was growing up. As it stands, I recently devoured almost everything they wrote. I had finished my last review of Patricia McKillip’s work a while ago and came across AG Slatter’s All the whispering bones. It was brilliant – well-written with compelling characters and a world that incorporated just enough known mythologies and darker fairy tales to keep reading. I continued to read everything Slatter published, including the fun and entertaining “crime supernatural” novels featuring Verity Fassbinder, a mystery-solving, crime-fighting hero. Slatter’s short story collections are set in a world both familiar and unfamiliar, where women and girls suffer under oppressive patriarchal systems not too dissimilar to our own past (and future?) horrors. The women in Sourdough and other stories and Slatter’s other collections are guardians of arcane knowledge, witches and healers, and women who do whatever it takes to survive if not necessarily thrive. In his new novel, The path of thorns, there are no heroes, only survivors. As Slatter herself said, the novel draws themes from Jane Eyre and Frankenstein while pushing back against the idea that men are at the center of stories and that women’s stories should always end in marriage and/or suffering. Certainly there is a great deal of suffering for the women of The path of thornsas is often the case in Slatter’s work: women suffer at the hands of other women, men, or because their world does not value them, their bodies or their knowledge.
The novel begins as a young woman, Asher Todd, travels alone to serve as governess to the three Morwood children. Their father, Luther, is a violent drunk. Their mother, Jessamine, curled up and fragile. Once a force to be reckoned with, matriarch Leonora Morwood loses her sight and is confined to her rooms in Morwood Mansion. When Asher arrives – in the midst of a classic gothic storm and chased by an unknown beast – the family desperately needs his direction. Asher soon begins teaching the children, and when she learns of Leonora’s condition, promises a cure. As the novel oscillates between past and present, we learn that Asher is a young woman bent on revenge and fulfilling a terrible promise she made to her dying mother, Héloïse.
Asher slowly reveals her secrets as she delves into the history of the Morwood family. We learn that Asher’s mother, Heloise, was Luther’s sister and the rightful heir to the Morwood estate. But Héloïse was sent to the pregnant world of Asher, banished from her home. Surviving with her intelligence and beauty, Héloïse was often cruel to Asher, blaming her for their frequent poverty. Asher learned as a child that his mother’s love was conditional and unpredictable: “Once upon a time there was a silly little girl who thought that if she could just try hard enough, her mother would be happy. Would be happy. Would be good.” And when Héloïse discovers that her daughter has a special gift for magic, Héloïse begins to plan her revenge. But Héloïse also warns her daughter to hide her gift because “those who are different are burned or drowned”. is a world where women who stand out are punished, a world where the wonders of the past created by women are the cause for those same women to be burned by the Church as witches.
As in Slatter’s other works, there are fairy tales woven throughout the novel, some familiar and others retold askew, lending depth to the larger story. The Morwood children tell Asher the story of the “evil timber wolves” and how a good priest defeated them, saving the villagers. But the gardener, Eli Bligh, suggests a different version, saying there is “no point in telling stories that make heroes of priests”. It’s no surprise to learn that Asher’s father is the local priest, a terrible man who meets an equally terrible fate. Eli Bligh is elemental: a man/beast of the forest related by blood to the original inhabitants of the domain. He and his cottage become a haven for Asher from the terrors of House Morwood (a “secret-eating house”) as well as a balance to Luther Morwood’s toxic masculinity. Luther is a brutal man and his brutality extends to the villagers – not only fathering illegitimate children on consenting (and non-consenting) village girls, but also refusing his duties as lord of the manor to provide proper care to the villagers. . By word of mouth, Asher quietly begins to treat their various illnesses leading to a violent confrontation with Luther. As the mystery mounts (What happened to the former governess? What disease is killing one of the families in the village?) Asher recalls: “Courage, Asher. There’s no one else to have it for you.
Asher is able to help Leonora regain her sight and Leonora reasserts her dominance over her son and his family. This sounds positive at first, but Leonora’s desire to regain her youthfulness leads her to make a terrible request of Asher. Soon we learn not only what dark magic Asher is capable of, but exactly what Heloise asked Asher to do for her. As Asher’s past, lies, and promises begin to pile up (along with the bodies), she dreams of escaping her mother and the Morwoods, “Just as I came to break this house, so do I. so… i have to go before i’m fully separated In a heart-pounding climax, all the lies and conspiracies are brought to light, dark secrets are revealed, and Asher’s story is resolved in an unconventional firestorm of an end.
Holly Black states in the afterword to night book this is her first novel for adults. But Black’s previous YA novels are great reads, even for jaded adults like me. Her stories of strong young women fighting back against oppression, whether from boys/men or the evil people of Faery, are compelling and entertaining. night book is not set in the Faery Kingdom but in a twisted version of Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. Charlie “Charlatan” Hall claims she’s been “twisted, since the day she was born. Never met a bad decision she wasn’t ready to double down on. Had fingers made for picking pockets, a tongue for lie and a shriveled cherry pit for a heart. But Charlie is a very likeable protagonist, and despite her own self-assessment, we learn that she (like Asher) was shaped by a less than ideal mother: a woman so implied that she allows a sleazy crook to use a twelve-year-old Charlie for his inconveniences. Charlie narrowly escaping his life.
Charlie’s world is both familiar (bar jobs, boyfriends, rent, hangovers) and unfamiliar. In this world, people’s shadows are part of “shadow magic” where shadows can be changed to look like wings or cats but also used to intimidate others, to increase one’s own power. There is a market for stolen shadows and a powerful “cabal” that rules shadow magic. Black does a great job of explaining this world – without interrupting the narrative rhythm with extended exposition – and we learn more about power structures and shadow magic as the pace of Charlie’s life quickly moves on. “Alterationists” understand one of the four shadow disciplines: they “cosmetically shape shadows, using them to trigger emotions so strong they could be addictive.” Working with shadow magic is “slick”, and other disciplines include “shells focused on their own shadows” who can fly, “puppeteers” who send their shadows out to do “the kind of filthy shit no one wanted talk,” and “the masks…a group of creeps and mystics bent on unlocking the secrets of the universe no matter who it hurts.” There are also “Blights” – shadows that roam free after their “gloamist” dies.
Charlie’s boyfriend Vince doesn’t have a shadow – he tells her he’s been robbed (a common occurrence in a world where shadows have power). Charlie’s younger sister, Posey, is obsessed with activating her own shadow, risking her health and sanity. When an acquaintance, Doreen, asks Charlie to find his missing partner Adam, Charlie launches a search that sets off a series of events dating back to his own childhood trauma and involving the entire shadow magic elite in The valley. At the bar where Charlie works, a “tweedy man” (Paul Ecco) is kicked out for trying to sell part of a mysterious book, the Liber Noctem, wanted by Lionel Salt. Later, on his way home from work, Charlie sees Ecco’s body, “cracked like a nut” and nearby a man whose hands are “entirely made of shadow”. She returns home, but the Man with Shadow Hands will become a terrifying part of Charlie’s life as she begins her search for Adam and the book. Charlie is intrigued by the Liber Noctem, and though she swore to steal and trade rare books and items wanted by gloamists, it turns out that Adam might have the book. Charlie is thrown back into her old life because “she might be able to have something she never thought she would – the satisfaction of taking something away from Lionel Salt”.
Moving from the past to the present, we learn how Charlie became who she is and what Lionel Salt did to her. And we start to mistrust Vince and everyone in Charlie’s world. Although Charlie has a tattoo that says ‘fearless’, we feel her fear and recklessness as she delves deeper into the valley’s shadow magic underground, learns what she believes to be the secret of Vince and discovers that his own shadow is “accelerating”. Charlie decides “If she couldn’t be responsible or careful or good or loved, if she were doomed to be a lit match, then [she] might as well go back and look for things to burn. At a rapidly accelerating pace, she does just that: set in motion a complex plan that ultimately leads to a confrontation with the Cabal and Salt at his home and the revelation of many truths: including Vince’s identity and the importance of Liber Noctem. Similar to the end of The path of thornsdark secrets are revealed and the world of darkness implodes thanks to Charlie’s lit match.