Thornspell by Helen Lowe
Target Audience: Middle Grade/YA
Summary: Prince Sigismund has grown up hearing fantastical stories about enchantments and faie spells, basilisks and dragons, knights-errant and heroic quests. He'd love for them to be true—he's been sheltered in a country castle for most of his life and longs for adventure—but they are just stories. Or are they?
From the day that a mysterious lady in a fine carriage speaks to him through the castle gates, Sigismund's world starts to shift. He begins to dream of a girl wrapped, trapped, in thorns. He dreams of a palace, utterly still, waiting. He dreams of a man in red armor, riding a red horse—and then suddenly that man arrives at the castle!
Sigismund is about to learn that sometimes dreams are true, that the world is both more magical and more dangerous than he imagined, and that the heroic quest he imagined for himself as a boy . . . begins now.
Type of Adaptation: Retelling with a perspective shift
So, this is a change, you may notice. Originally, this week’s novel was A Long, Long Sleep, but after reading, though that one tries really hard to be Sleeping Beauty, it isn’t. And I figured that there were enough actual Sleeping Beauty novelizations out there that I probably ought to focus on one of those. So I picked Thornspell, one I hadn’t read before.
This was a pretty intricate and complex novel, and while I do have the complaint that even after reading the whole thing, I’m still avoiding ever having to say this prince’s name aloud because I honestly don’t know how to pronounce it, for the most part, I enjoyed this book.
I’m gonna keep the summary pretty light this week, though, because the novel is so complex.
So, Sigismund (which behindthename.com tells me is a variant of Sigmund, but doesn’t give me any sort of pronunciation for) is a prince who has grown up at an isolated castle in the west of his kingdom for as long as he can remember. He was taken there by his father when he was a very young child, after his mother died suddenly and his father was needed to fight in the southern wars.
His rules have always been simple – don’t leave the palace walls. He has free run of the grounds within them, but he is never to step outside the walls, and he shouldn’t even think about setting foot anywhere near the Wood, which can be seen from West Castle, and which was placed under interdict almost a century ago.
The older Sig gets (yes, that’s what I took to calling him in my head so I wouldn’t stumble over his name every time it appeared), the more he starts to notice strange things happening. And it is around this time that his father sends a master-at-arms, Balisan, to teach and train him in the way of weaponry. Sig knew he was coming because he dreamed it, a dream that turned out to be true, as many of Sig’s dreams have.
Shortly after Balisan arrives to start teaching Sig the sword, Sig has an encounter with a woman outside the gate. She is very beautiful, almost hypnotically so, and she tells Sig that she has bought a castle nearby, and in the midst of their chit-chat, she attempts to give him a ring. He has to reach through the bars of the gate to get it, though, and as he does so, he catches a glimpse of a girl on the palace grounds, which startles him so much that he drops the ring to the dirt, and then something happens.
It’s a magical something, and it makes Sig go all fuzzy and faint and fall into a feverish . . . fancy, just because I want to keep the alliteration going. But no, the kid gets seriously ill, in illness nothing can touch until a woman in lilac appears in a dream and heals him. Sig is convinced she was real, despite everyone telling him when he wakes that there was no such woman. They ask him what happened at the gate, but hard as he tries, he can’t remember.
All of this makes Balisan very suspicious, and he’s smart enough to figure out what’s going on. He takes Sig down to the lilac garden, and there he summons the very woman from Sig’s dream – she’s a fairy named Syrica who has hidden herself inside the West Castle garden for close to a hundred years, and she’s the one who explains who the woman at the gate was.
Turns out, that was an evil fairy (I know you’re all shocked at this revelation) named Margravine zu Malvolin, who has been trying to infiltrate West Castle for almost a hundred years. Because almost a hundred years ago, this fairy laid a curse on a young princess, and by now, you all know the story that Syrica tells. Margravine is the evil fairy with the curse, Syrica is the good fairy with the attempted solution, but what this book allows us to see is what happens in the interim, after the spells are enacted, while our Sleeping Beauty waits to be awoken.
The evil fairy’s motivation here is stronger than just wounded pride. She wants the kingdom of the princess for reasons that have to do with power, and she wants to destroy Sig’s family for the same reason. In this world, once magic has been set in motion, not even the spell casters can affect how it will play out, which makes all magic a risk. But what both fairies here know is that Sig’s family will be connected, and that Sig himself is very likely to be the prince meant to break the spell, as he will come of age in the year the spell is to be broken.
The end result of all this knowledge is that Balisan begins to teach Sig magic and how to use it. It’s a complicated process, and I won’t get into it, but I will give you one more pertinent fact – in this world, there are places where the human world and the world of Faerie overlap and exist in the same space, if you know how to move between them.
Jump ahead to the year Sig turns 16. His father (still away at war) has decided that the prince maybe shouldn’t be hidden away at a far off castle anymore, so he has Sig brought to the capital to meet the people. The king promises he will join him there soon.
Sig falls in with a group of boys his own age, led by one named Flor, who is casually arrogant in a way that makes Sig uncomfortable, but generally seems to be a good sort.
About a week before his father is due to arrive, the boys are invited to go on a board hunt in the West. Balisan agrees that Sig should go, but he warns the prince that he might be in danger, and he should be on the lookout constantly and be careful who he trusts.
And sure enough, once on the hunt, Sig is separated from the rest and pursued by the board, who is larger and smarter than boars ought to be. One of Sig’s men is killed by the beast to save Sig’s life, and Sig, using his magic, is able to kill the boar. He is so numb and in shock on the ride back that he doesn’t even notice when his horse is led off course. The next thing he knows, he is in the Faerie realm, and shocker, Flor is the one who betrayed him.
Turns out, Flor is actually the grandson of the Margarvine zu Malvolin, and he befriended Sig for just this eventuality, but what he and the Margarvine hadn’t counted on was that Sig had been studying magic with Balisan. It’s the most difficult thing Sig has ever done, but between his magical gift, luck, and the helpful presence of the girl he saw that day by the gate (who is mute but who Sig has come to call Rue), he is finally able to slip between worlds and emerge on the human side. Somewhere along the way, he gains a sword, but we’ll get to that.
He emerges in his father’s private war room to discover that two years have passed for his father and the kingdom, while only a single night has for him. This means that the year of Sig’s destiny is much, much closer. Sig crippled the Margarvine while he was in Faerie – inadvertently, but still – but as the time for the breaking of the curse comes closer, she will be getting both more powerful and more desperate.
So, Sig figures, why wait for the time to come to him? If the spell is tied to him, he should be able to manipulate it. So he plans to leave in secret, since his father refuses to give him permission to go tackle the curse in the woods, but Balisan finds him out. Instead of stopping him, though, he helps Sig get away.
This is where the story gets really complicated, a bit more complicated than it needs to be, honestly. On the one hand, you have Sig, torn between this duty he thinks he has to the sleeping princess and the way he has come to feel about Rue, the mute girl trapped in a magical world. (Spoiler – they’re one and the same). And then, you have this whole complicated bit with Margarvine and her motivation and why no one has stopped her, and Syrica’s plan to get her to act against humans in the human world because that will . . . do something important.
Sig’s first attempt to breech the wood fails, and he’s pretty badly injured in the attempt. The second time, he makes it through, through the wood and the briars and into the castle, and to the side of the sleeping princess. He wakes her with a kiss, and then realizes that he’s led Flor and the other servants of the Margarvine right to her, and though he tries to fight them, he fails, and she is taken away to the evil fairy.
Except that that wasn’t the real princess. It was a simulacrum, and the real princess is hidden in a place Sig has visited in his dreams without understanding its significance. Rue appears to lead him to it, and once she has, he realizes that gasp and shock! Rue is actually the princess! He wakes her, and then there’s this massive battle between Sig and the Malvolin’s servants, and it gets really complicated really fast, and it turns out Balisan is really a dragon, and Syrica and Margarvine are sisters, and Margarvine does something wrong and the Faerie Queen finally arrives to sort it all out, and they do address the question of why she hadn’t done so before, but it’s not a terribly satisfactory answer.
But happily ever after has been achieved, even if there is entirely too much tacked onto the end beyond that in an attempt to make it feel like more than just a love story, I guess.
I liked the book, don’t get me wrong. I liked it, and I’m glad that someone decided to focus solely on the prince. But there was a lot going on in this story, and while it was interesting, I’m not convinced it was all necessary. But let’s look at the checklist.
Make the characters more active in their own story? Solid yes. Sig is actively training for this destiny throughout, rather than just stumbling onto the palace randomly one day. In this story, he trains and studies and prepares and knows the whole of things before setting out. The princess, too, is given a more active role, able to send her spirit out while her body is sleeping, to help the prince help her. I liked that.
Introduce more conflict? Honestly, there was a little too much conflict. I never did fully understand what the deal was with the Faerie Queen and why she wasn’t stepping in to stop Margarvine’s power grabs a lot sooner. I also don’t fully get why Rue’s kingdom was so all-fired important. Like, power is one thing, but this seemed excessive. There was just a little too much going on, and it felt like overcompensation.
Explain the actions of the parents? We don’t actually see that much of them, as this isn’t the princess’s story, so this point isn’t really applicable.
Flesh out the story? Yes, again, a little too much at times. I enjoyed the world and its imagining, but there were times I felt a little overwhelmed by it.
All in all, I did enjoy this one, but I felt it could have been a little simpler and still been just as good.