Thornhedge (T. Kingfisher) – Book Review

Building a steady portfolio of earthy, naturalistic fantasy stories, T. Kingfisher – aka Ursula Vernon – continues her prolific work by releasing Thornhedge, a short novella that deconstructs classic fantasy tropes and centres on one of the most endearing and quietly brilliant heroines in recent fantasy fiction, Toadling.

Like her name suggests, Toadling is a member of the supernatural folk, stolen from her parents’ crib as a baby and swapped with a sinister, violent changeling. Toadling grows up happy but is soon tasked with placing a blessing on a child on the orders of a goddess, a blessing that goes spectacularly wrong and sees Toadling stuck in the mortal world for centuries.

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Toadling is easily the strongest part of this short novella (Thornhedge clocks in just north of 100 pages), a stolen child turned failed fairy godmother (a similar fairy godmother appears in Kingfisher’s Nettle & Done, clearly an archetype worth exploring), who imbues the page with pathos and kindness, an anxious heroine who just wants to atone for her mistake. She’s joined the equally lovable Halim, a poor noble and aspiring knight from modern-day Turkey whose gentleness and care for Toadling infuriates and warms her in equal measure, creating a central pair so endearing the reader will wish they had several hundred more pages  so as to follow them.

The threat they face is a spoiler, so suffice it to say that the narrative has a few tricks up its sleeve, an admirable feat in such slim pages, and Kingfisher could take note and reintroduce the pair at a later date to fight another evil. There’s also some criticism abound about the historic positioning of changelings and their correlation with autistic traits and individuals; Kingfisher doesn’t attempt to address this, and the changeling in Thornhedge is squarely malignant, a violent villain lacking nuance.

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Kingfisher’s fascination with the natural world as part and parcel of the magical world-building continues here, with Toadling herself an adopted member of the ‘greenteeth’, the world of fae and changelings proving key to the story, and Toadling’s powers over water and earth proving a counterpoint to the sinister changeling’s affinity for fire and air. Kingfisher’s stories all feel rooted in the physical, even in worlds beyond our own, with medicinal herbs taking the place of healing magic, and mud and water proving to be as good a prison as a curse.

Perhaps too slight of a story with such an engaging pair of lead characters, Thornhedge nonetheless is a sweet and melancholic story that is a breezy retelling and subversion of classic fairy tales and a lovely entrant into Kingfisher’s growing canon. Kingfisher will no doubt be working on her next fantasy adventure as we speak, but this reviewer cannot help but express a small hope – or, more aptly, a wish – that this isn’t the last time we see Halim and Toadling.

Thornhedge is out on 15th August from Titan Books.

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