Author Ava Reid’s debut novel The Wolf and the Woodsman was one of 2021’s most unexpected delights, a complicated, evocative tale of faith and folklore that explored how both can be and frequently are weaponized culturally against those with the least power within a society. And in many ways, her second novel manages to surpass her first.
Juniper and Thorn is technically a fairytale, but not in the way we’ve been trained to expect. A magical Gothic horror story of monstrous fathers, untrustworthy sisters, and lost innocence, this is a tale where a heroine has to save herself from a viciously patriarchal system, but she won’t be able to keep the blood off her hands while she does so. (Either figuratively or literally speaking.)
In the vaguest sense,Juniper and Thorn is a retelling of the Grimms Brothers’ story “The Juniper Tree,” in which an evil stepmother tricks her husband into eating his own son for dinner. Narratively speaking, the two tales have little in common beyond the name of a central character, the presence of the titular tree, and a painfully forthright depiction of cannibalism, but this more modern update certainly revels in a similar level of violence and gore.
Reid’s version is set in the town of Oblya, a vaguely Eastern European-esque city in the grips of profound cultural change, as magic and folklore are being pushed aside in favor of science and technology. Here, at this crossroads of superstition and cultural advancement, sits Zmiy Vaschenko—the last true wizard in the kingdom and a man who hates capitalism, the ballet, and all signs of modern progress—who keeps his three witch daughters locked away in their crumbling cottage. Eldest child Undine is a seer, who can divine the future in her scrying pool; middle daughter Roserot is a herbalist capable of making powerful potions; and the youngest, Marlinchen, is a flesh diviner, able to use touch to read people through their skin.
The girls have little freedom under the watchful eye of their father, who suffers from a debilitating curse of his own and who refuses to let them leave or see anyone who isn’t a paying client. (And his idea of the services these clients are allowed to pay for runs a long and often disturbing gamut.) When the girls sneak out to the ballet one night, Marlinchen accidentally meets Sevastyan, the theater company’s principal dancer, on whom she develops an instant and obvious crush.
But when Sevas’ handler brings him to the Vaschenko home hoping for a cure for an illness, Zmiy notices Marlinchen’s flustered interest, and tightens his grip on his daughters even further, casting a spell that not only forbids them from leaving the property but simultaneously threatens to turn anyone that crosses its gate into a pile of venomous snakes. However, we soon learn that life outside the Vaschenko house is no safer than inside it, as a mysterious series of killings among the city’s marginalized populations puts everyone at risk.
Juniper and Thorn is technically set in the same world as The Wolf and the Woodsman (and even brilliantly works in a direct reference to its mythology at one point) but where that story wrestled primarily with issues of faith and belonging, this one explores complex issues of family and personal agency. What does it mean to love someone who hurts you? Who you well know is most likely a literal monster? And how can you claim your own power or recognize your own value when those who are supposed to love you best have always told you you don’t have any of those things?
Marlinchen’s journey is not an easy one. Nor is she always a particularly easy heroine to love. Her passiveness in the face of her father’s abject and repeated cruelty is stomach-turning at times, as is her seemingly boundless willingness to forgive him, which the story occasionally blames on the power of his magic, but I think is actually more all the more devastating if we assume it’s simply because abuse is a cycle. “I would smile blithely if someone tried to saw off my leg,” Marlinchen says at one point-. “But no one had ever told me that I was allowed to scream.”
As the story continues, the question ultimately becomes what is Marlinchen will to risk for true freedom. How determined is she to forget her own path? And what is she willing to sacrifice along the way. (The answer, as it turns out, is a lot, and many of our heroine’s choices are of the sort that come with scars that don’t ever quite heal.)
A fairytale that reads much more like a warning label than a Disney fantasy, Juniper and Thorn is a pitch-black tale of trauma, abuse, and survival, set in a world teeming with literal monsters and monstrous men. And, yet, Marlinchen’s story is ultimately not a hopeless or unhappy one, despite the fact that its setting is grim and its pages full of death: At the end of the day, the long-suffering daughter still triumphs, though she must accept and even embrace the worst parts of herself in order to do so. (And carry scars that will never fully heal.) It’s a nontraditional happy ending, but perhaps that’s what makes it feel so right.
Juniper and Thorn
is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.