Melissa Bashardoust’s Girl, Serpent, Thorn has the lushness of a fairy tale and the boldness of the best contemporary YA fantasy. This opulent novel, inspired by traditional Persian stories, combines all the romance and intrigue of high fantasy with a deep exploration of the main character’s emotional world and relationship to her own strength. Back matter, including an extensive Author’s Note, provides more context about the fairy tales, myths, traditions, and cultural references that Bashardoust has woven into the novel, as well as suggestions for further reading for those interested in learning more.
Soraya, the shah’s sister, is hidden away from the public eye so that no one will discover the curse a div, or demon, placed upon her as a child: by sending div blood coursing through her veins, the demon ensured any living being Soraya touches will instantly die. When a mysterious, handsome soldier offers to help undo her curse, Soraya is smitten––and quickly embroiled in a political battle that sees her family’s rule upended in a coup d’état. The soldier turns out to be the feared half-man, half-div Shahmar, and he wants Soraya, another human who knows what it’s like to be part-div, to join his side in submitting the humans and divs to his violent rule.
Soraya is successful at undoing her curse, but now she must figure out how to stop the Shahmar from murdering her entire family, while still feigning interest in his romantic advances. To make matters more complicated, Soraya finds herself falling for Parvaneh, a female div who helped turn the Shahmar into the powerful creature he is and has regretted it ever since. Soraya isn’t sure she can trust a div like Parvaneh––especially one who proves so alluring––but with no other allies, she doesn’t have much choice.
The two team up to try to outwit the Shahmar and save Soraya’s family and Parvaneh’s fellow divs before it’s too late. As they sneak around the Shahmar’s heavily-guarded mountain fortress, their attraction deepens, with each touch a heightened sensation for Soraya, who spent so many years unable to even risk brushing up against another person for fear of striking them dead. Soraya describes the spark between her and Parvaneh as a kind of “wanderlust,” with her fingertips yearning “to explore new landscapes, new textures.” As the danger ramps up, these quiet moments between Soraya and Parvaneh become a tender respite, dramatizing Soraya’s longing for intimacy, both physical and emotional.
The story is sexy, bloody, and luxurious, but perhaps the most interesting part is the way Soraya slowly begins to see the things that have always made her different as not a weakness, but a strength. Her curse may have been just that––a curse––but it also gave her a way to defend herself. And when she makes a choice later in the book that means risking becoming cursed again, it is because she understands the div blood that ran through her veins in a new way. Perhaps being different doesn’t mean being shameful. Perhaps it doesn’t have to mean hiding away.
In a story about a protagonist who experiences attraction to more than one gender, this character arc is especially affirming. The Shahmar may be the first one to tell Soraya, “You and I don’t belong fully to either world,” but it is Parvaneh’s gentle love that helps Soraya see maybe she can simply belong to both: “Soraya no longer had to choose between one piece of herself and another. She could be whole.”
Girl, Serpent, Thorn
By Melissa Bashardoust
Hardcover, 9781250764942, 336 pp.