The path of thornsA. G. Slatter (Titan Books 978-1-78909-437-4, $15.95, 384pp, tp) June 2022.
Over the past decade, beginning with the collection Sourdough and other stories, AG Slatter gradually built a lush and deeply imaginary secondary world inspired by European fairy tales, myths and legends. Last year she published the first novel set in this universe, Fabulous Gothic Fantasy, All the whispering bones (one of my favorite books of 2021), and has now followed it up with a second novel: the delicious and dark The path of thorns. You don’t need to have read All the whispering bones or the short fiction to enjoy this latest installment, but you really, really should. The Sourdough universe – which includes the collections The Bitterwood Bible and Other Stories, The Tallow Woman and Other Talesand the news Of sorrow and others – is a remarkable achievement, which makes Slatter one of the best contemporary fantasists in the field, along with CSE Cooney and Frances Hardinge.
As All the whispering bones, The path of thorns is a gothic fantasy. But where the old book’s protagonist, Miren O’Malley, has the character traits of the traditional gothic heroine, in that she’s unaware of the dark secrets that bind her family, Asher Todd enters The path of thorns shrouded (literally) in mystery, concealing both her true identity, with the help of an enchanted ring, and her motivation to take on the role of governess for the three Morwood children. It’s the setting of the novel, the hallways, bedrooms, drawing rooms and inhabitants of Morwood Grange, which are dripping with gothic intent. No one in the household, including the staff and the Morwood family, is willing to discuss why the former governess left so abruptly or why she hasn’t returned to her family. Nor will anyone speak ill of Luther Morwood, the nominal head of the family, now that his mother Leonora never leaves her room, blinded by cataracts. He is distant to his children, cruel and unfaithful to his wife, Jessamine, and continues to have a liking to young women, despite this being the very reason he was expelled from Whitebarrow University. There is also a shape-shifting wolf patrolling the perimeter of the property and a rage-filled ghost that haunts the halls of the Barn, an apparition that seems determined to harm Jessamine Morwood, and which Asher Todd finds very familiar.
Underlining all of Slatter’s work is his love for storytelling: both the mechanics of it and its larger cultural purpose. She excels in rhythm, a rare gift, given the plethora of fiction published each year. It’s not that Slatter cuts back on her prose – one of the strengths of her work is an appreciation for the rhythm and poetry of language – it’s that she cuts out unnecessary repetition and exposition, treating her audience as adults, not like goldfish. And as she skillfully demonstrates with The path of thorns, she knows when to reveal key plot information and when to hold back. It’s a balancing act that many writers struggle with, but one that Slatter pulls off with Olympic-level ease. Technique is only part of what makes Slatter such a good writer. Since the publication of the first Sourdough collection over ten years ago, there has been an implicit understanding that this is a secondary world woven entirely of stories, fables and fairy tales. Slatter reinforced the idea in both All the whispering bones and The path of thorns, where some of the most important moments involve the characters sharing a story (usually abridged versions of tales published in Slatter’s collections). It is a meta-narrative that artfully demonstrates the vital role narrative plays in the cultural tapestries that inform our worldview.
While men generally play a peripheral role in the Sourdough universe, the full effect of patriarchy can still be felt. Asher Todd is a prime example. On the surface, she exhibits all the traits of a self-reliant woman: she is intelligent, well-versed in herbs and natural medicine, and has more than a passing knowledge of the darker arts. However, as the plot unfolds, we discover that Asher has been forced to self-educate her path to knowledge, taking a job as a housekeeper at Whitebarrow University – a place where she is forbidden to date as a student – where she learned to ”slip in and out of places” she wasn’t meant to be.
All these smart men wrote such smart notes, all their lectures and all the results of their treatments and experiments. I read every one of them until I knew more than any speckled student who wandered the halls, who had bought his way into the institution.
It is not until much later in the novel that Asher’s talents are officially recognized by Leonora Morwood who entrusts her son’s surgery to the young woman because the village “needs a doctor or at least someone ‘one who knows what he is doing’. is overwhelmed by conflicting and intense emotions: “I don’t know if it’s rage, grief, or gratitude, or maybe all three. » grief and gratitude (especially the first two) are shared by many women The path of thorns.
The good news is that Slatter has signed another two-pound deal with Titan. Whether it’s novels set in the Sourdough universe or a new episode of the Verity Fassbiner series, I’m not agitated. I will read everything she writes.
Ian Mond likes to talk about books. For eight years, he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently, he relaunched his blog, The hysterical hamster, and again publishes mostly vulgar reviews of an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at [email protected].
This review and others like it in the June 2022 issue of Venue.
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