'Girl, Serpent, Thorn': Mistakes and who is allowed to make them

Wednesday, June 10, 2020 - 5:21pm

A sign of a compelling book is the inability to look away from the page. When reading Melissa Bashardoust’s “Girl, Serpent, Thorn,” my nose stayed glued to the e-book screen. Despite the questionable pacing and unfulfilled storylines, I chugged her book down like a gloriously cold bottle of water on a scorching summer day.

I was immersed in Melissa Bashardoust’s fictionalized Persian empire. Her mythic world documents sprawling palaces, dangerous ladies and looming demonic forces. In that vast world, a young princess, Soraya, is isolated from the rest of the population. Her poisonous touch makes her a threat to the kingdom. While her twin brother rules the realm, she is touch-starved and relegated to her bedroom, and can only travel through the palace’s secret passageways. To change her fate, she is tempted by the mythic demons whose power she has been gifted. That temptation leads her and her kingdom to their destruction and ultimate resolution.

Soraya stands for every reader unaware of their potential and power. She is a poster child for internalized self-loathing but lacks the vocabulary to identify her insecurities. She’s lonely and afraid of her own abilities. She wants friends but fears for their safety. She fundamentally wants some permanence in a world determined to obscure and deny her existence. Very few novels represent internalized self-loathing and confusion as clearly as Bashardoust’s. 

Bashardoust’s ancient Persian setting functions more as a vague aesthetic stage for magical plot devices than as an immersive world. Bashardoust’s primary focus is her character-driven drama. There is very little within the novel grounded in history. Furthermore, the broader war between Soraya’s civilization and the demonic forces that plague them goes unexplored and unquestioned. The greater in-world conflict is a watery backdrop for Soraya’s struggle to identify her wants within a cacophony of conflicting opinions and expectations.

Though “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” is not compelling in setting, its strengths lie in its willingness to focus on individual autonomy. In many respects, Bashardoust’s protagonist is atypical. Soraya’s backstory and actions code her as an antihero but while she questions morality, her greatest sin is out of her power. She’s too powerful and influential to make childish mistakes. Soraya does not mean harm but all her actions have consequences. While confused and hurting, Soraya cripples her kingdom’s defenses, allowing a hoard of demons to overtake the land. Soraya’s mistakes and selfish desire sets her apart from others in the YA literary canon. Bashardoust allows Soraya to impart devastating destruction on those around her, then forces her to clean up her mess. But despite her selfishness, you can’t help but empathize with her character. Soraya has not only been deprived of human company but also the ability to make mistakes. That tragedy drives Soraya’s desire for restitution and foretells her kingdom’s doom.

Soraya’s atypical character construction is one example of how Bashardoust’s novel plays Russian roulette with expectations. Veteran YA readers are trained to pick up on genre tropes and plotlines. Soraya has two love interests. Early hints flag each character as a contender for her heart. But unlike other YA novels, ultimately neither love interest is fighting for Soraya’s heart. They are vying to influence her worldview and self-perception. Through minute framing differences, Bashardoust flaunts romantic expectations while never straying beyond the bounds of YA convention. Her novel features the YA hallmarks, such as: The powerful magic woman who doesn’t know she’s special, dark and mysterious boys and looming existential threats. However, the novel does not attempt to subvert the genre conventions. Instead, Bashardoust rearranges the tropes by compressing the novel’s timeline. Common YA tropes act as temporary red herrings for seasoned readers. They mentally chart out the novel’s events, assuming a three-book format. Thus, reading “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” as a YA veteran is a vexing experience. 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” could have benefited from a higher page count. Soraya’s romances and internal conflict were underserved by the length of the book. The novel’s pacing and structure hinders emotional realizations: Her attraction to her love interests and motivations to make decisions were at worst unconvincing, at best rushed. The story needed more room to breathe and convince the audience of Soraya’s anguish and rationalizations. By the end of the novel, several plotlines and characters are left unresolved. 

“Girl, Serpent, Thorn” recognizes that where lies and violence are easy, internal truths are harder to confront, sift through and refine. Though her sense of structure lags, Bashardoust’s “Girl, Serpent, Thorn” begs to be aggressively and enthusiastically read.