Popular culture tends to see fairytales in a very particular light: Colorful, romantic stories of princesses in magical castles, dashing princes, and first kisses, where good always triumphs and evil is always ugly. We like to forget that the original tales—whether passed down through folklore or penned by the Brothers Grimm themselves, are sharp, dark things, often uncomfortable, always complicated, and as likely to steal the breath from your throat as inspire dreams of happily ever after.
That is the kind of fairytale at the center of T. Kingfisher’s latest novella, Thornhedge, a delicate, sharp-edged story of a princess in a tower that’s actually a meditation on duty, loss, and grief. A bittersweet exploration of the power of language, the way stories shift and change over time, and the weight of the promises we make to others, it’s bleak and challenging and beautiful in all the best possible ways. If only because, at its heart, this is a story that reminds us, as Peter Beagle once said, there are no happy endings, not really—because nothing ever truly ends.
In the strictest sense, Thornheadge is a retelling of the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, in that most of the elements of that familiar story are present: There’s a princess asleep in a high tower, guarded by an impossible wall of brambles and deadly thorns. A meddlesome fairy who either curses and/or saves the girl. Knights on the hunt for glory. A legend that refuses to die. Attempted rescue. Uncomfortable consequences. And an ending where all is put right again. Sort of. But, as you’ve probably already guessed, this isn’t that story. Not really.
While Thornhedge clocks in at less than 150 pages, it packs the emotional wallop of a book three times this size, helpfully reminding us that no one is doing more with less in the fantasy space than Kingfisher. Not a single word is wasted—even the punctuation feels insanely purposeful—and its delicate descriptors, mournful tone, and carefully crafted dialogue all feel deliberately arranged for maximum emotional and narrative impact.
Thornhedge follows Toadling, this Sleeping Beauty’s technical fairy godmother, who arrives in a nameless kingdom with a mission to perform involving the christening of a changeling princess and the verbal gift she’s meant to leave behind. When things go wrong, she’s forced to try and fix things as best she can, a choice that binds her forever to the young princess and her fate, for good and ill. An unassuming, average-looking member of the fairy folk Toadling is an outsider even among her own people. Too human for the fae who took her in, and too alien for the human world she left behind, she struggles to know where to belong or how best to find her purpose. (One of the best things about this story is the subtle ways it pushes back against the traditional fairytale standards of beauty, and what physical appearance allegedly says about the state of one’s soul.)
Toadling is always tired, often wrestles with social anxiety, and openly frets when tales of the princess in a tower refuse to die off, even in the face of the Black Death itself. She’d rather transform into a toad than face the various princes and second sons who come to the thorn hedge seeking fame and glory, and though she’s doing all she can to fulfill her duty, it never seems to be quite enough. But when a kind Muslim knight named Halim arrives at the tower, Toadling is surprised by his sweet nature, as well as his willingness to actually listen to her without judgment. Undeterred by her strange appearance and repeated insistence that he absolutely not fulfill the quest he’s come to take part in, the two slowly become friends, as each helps the other to move past some of their own personal griefs and challenges. The story shifts between two timelines, alternating between a present in which Toadling is sharing her story with Halim, and the past she’s describing,
The truth of Toadling’s connection to the unidentified being who lives beyond the thorn hedge that bars the door to the tower unspools with such steadily building tension that it feels nigh on unbearable at times. In truth, the revelation is spelled out so slowly there’s almost no way you won’t cotton on to what’s really happening long before the story officially tells you—-and someone that just manages to make the suffocating dread of it all that much worse.
Much like her 2022 story Nettle & Bone, Kingfisher finds intriguing new ways to weave dark themes and uncomfortable horror-esque elements into what seems as though it ought to be a lighthearted tale, and the end result is something that will stay with you well past the book’s final page. Because despite the monstrous elements occasionally at work at the heart of the book, Kingfisher manages to give Thornhedge an ending feels as inevitable as it is unexpectedly satisfying, a quiet reminder that our stories are not fixed, and it’s our choices that matter when it comes to deciding how they end.
Thornhedge is available now wherever books are sold.
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