You all already know how much I like Suzannah Rowntree’s Pendragon’s Heir, and if you don’t, you haven’t been reading this blog for very long. When I saw that she was publishing a new novella in her fairy-tale retellings series, and looking for advance reviews, I gladly offered.
(If you would like to see the cover as well, see this post on her blog, and you should read her blog anyway — there’s lots of good things on it.)
Ten Thousand Thorns is Sleeping Beauty in China, which I liked the idea of — a nice change from the usual medieval-European-fantasy retellings. (Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with medieval Europe, just too much of a good thing sometimes.) The writing style is still recognizable as Rowntree’s, not only in the very human villains but in the themes that come out.
The main characters, Iron Maiden and Clouded Sky, make a good pair when circumstances force them together: not trusting too quickly, but also not stubbornly refusing to work together when it’s been proven they can trust each other. Which was refreshing, having a story where a girl-guy pair neither falls in love at first sight nor irrationally hate each other and yet can’t separate. Finally! Some humanity!
Miss Iron is a warrior woman done right. I think her introduction helps: immediately after sending a man flying through a wall, she sits down to drink some tea. It’s an almost British trait, actually, but establishes her as feminine as well as female. And her skill at fighting comes just as much from her cleverness as her physical strength (kind of like Athene, come to think of it — or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Greek tragedy lately). And I loved her sense of humour.
My mother noted that she’s a very take-charge kind of woman, perhaps a bit too much so — being a girl-guy pair and all, for Iron Maiden to be the one getting things done was a bit odd, she said. But considering that Iron Maiden is running around getting things done because something needs doing that she can’t do, and she’s looking for someone who can — that seems reasonable. There’s another point later on where she takes charge of things in the middle of a fight, but it makes sense there because the only other person on her side is emotionally incapacitated, shall we say. So don’t read the story if you’re opposed to women ever being right alongside a man in a dangerous situation (but then, why would you ever be reading fairy tales?), I guess. But if you like warrior women who like their tea, and animals, and whose response to enemy soldiers is likely as not to be laughter, you’ll probably like Iron Maiden.
The dramatic tone fits the content, and the humourous bits throughout had my sister laughing sometimes (she read it while sick, and she still got the jokes). The title Vastly Martial Emperor made me smile, a bit like the names in Dream of Jade, and Longevity Noodles appearing as the main dish during the breakfast in which the uninvited fairy flies in to announce the princess’s premature death was a good touch. The fairy godmother character was also delightful.
Speaking of which, all the funny bits in Morning Light’s backstory were good, but I won’t quote them. You must read the book when it comes out for that. It releases on November 30, and at present only in e-book forms, though if it’s popular enough who knows what will happen.
The characters aren’t the only good thing about the story. I can’t go into great detail about the theme without spoilers, of course, because to reveal the answers to the questions the story asks would be to ruin it. Olivia just wrote a paper on Utilitarian ethics for school, so she noticed some of the moral dilemmas. Clouded Sky’s grappling with his position that it’s all right to put up with some evil to bring about a greater good contrasted nicely with Iron Maiden’s search for a hero.
The main villain, the Imperial Sword, was excellently done. I love villains who are bad without ceasing to be human. They’re more powerful, because we can see how, if just a few things were different, we could be the same way. (Speaking of Greek tragedy.) I was never quite sure, while reading, whether the Imperial Sword would continue being on the wrong side, or try to do something good, or be killed before he acted on a chance to do something good. For those who have read Pendragon’s Heir, I could see hints of Breunis in him and Clouded Sky (and maybe a touch of Agravaine, had things gone a bit differently with him). That was a very good thing.
And I’ve got to say this because of that writing workshop last spring, but I love stories where we see proper heroes, or how abstaining from personal evil doesn’t make you good and “I was just obeying orders” doesn’t work as an excuse.
“I was ordered to do it, so it’s not my fault” and “if I don’t do it someone else will” and basically every other example of situational ethics doesn’t work in stories, because these are not the kind of heroes who will inspire us to reach higher and be courageous and stand up for our principles, these are not the ones who give us hope in the midst of darkness. It will come and we’ll say “not even our heroes could withstand it” and despair. That’s one of the biggest problems with the modern kind of fiction where everyone is a villain and no one gets to be a proper hero because that’s not realistic. If it’s not realistic, don’t you think that’s kind of our fault? So Iron Maiden’s insistence on hope had me cheering for her the whole way through.
And I like how the Emperor can’t have the Mandate of Heaven, and we know this by the way he acts: no one with Heaven’s approval would be acting so contrary to Heaven’s decrees. It seems awfully simple, put that way, but read the story and you’ll see the solution is not exactly simplistic.
Several times Rowntree takes Eastern philosophy, if you can call it that, to its logical end, and with that and all the moral questions in the story already being asked and sometimes answered in an Eastern setting, this probably in’t light reading. Young readers could probably enjoy the story as a fun swashbuckling sort of adventure, but do be warned ahead of time that the dilemmas are central to the story and you probably shouldn’t be half-asleep while reading it. (I happen to like that kind of story myself.)
The only thing I have to say that is not praise (other than it only being available in e-book form) is that I want to know what happened after the end of the story. Not that that’s really the story’s fault. The ending is satisfying, but it’s exciting enough that you want to keep going and see how the people who survive do things. Occasionally I noticed typographical errors, but I can only remember three in the course of 134 pages, so that’s not so bad. I was confused by how quickly Second Brother woke up after a certain defeat, given how easy he was to take care of on other occasions. But I was hardly sorry to see him defeated, either.
My favourite line, if I must pick one, would probably be this: