Thornhedge, the newest from T. Kingfisher, is a compact fairy tale that packs a punch. “Classic fairy tales, but with a twist” is a well-trod route in fantasy, but Kingfisher’s take on Sleeping Beauty draws you in.
Toadling is born a princess, but is kidnapped as a baby as part of a fey prank to switch out a human child for a changeling. Raised by the greenteeth (slimy swamp monsters), she finds love and magic with her adopted family, not fully aware that anything is different about her. Unfortunately, her happy life is torn away from her when the higher ups determine that she needs to return to the human world and serve as fairy godmother for the child who took her place. Left in the human world with no guidance, a changeling child can cause untold destruction in their confusion and pain.
It’s obvious from the start that this plan— to have Toadling save the day with her fairy godmother blessing for the child— doesn’t work, since the story of her childhood and failed mission is told through flashbacks. In the current timeline, Toadling is alone, watching over an abandoned castle covered in thorns and vines. She spends time in her toad form (part of the magic learned from her adoptive family) and watches the world from a self-imposed distance. It’s fascinating to see how she experiences the changes that human society goes through from her isolation. Seeing soldiers leave for wars or seeing people dressed in what a reader knows is plague masks— followed by a reduction in the number of people she sees for years— is a really cool way to show how time passes, even if Toadling can’t explain what she’s seeing.
Toadling’s lonely world is thrown into chaos with the arrival of Halim, a Muslim knight who doesn’t match the fairy-tale descriptions you’d expect. He’s not handsome or rich, or an heir to anything important, and he says he’s not much good at knightly tourneys. But he’s interested in books and learning and history, and he loves his mother and family. He’s heard legends and stories about a kingdom hidden by thorns hundreds of years ago, and his curiosity has taken him here.
Toadling’s choices— to drive him off or kill him or not, to explain the situation or lie— could put the world at risk. Her choices are driven by her deep, deep kindness. Toadling wants nothing more than to be helpful to those around her, and she has a deep reservoir of love that nothing in her life has seemed to dim. It was a really unique choice for a POV-character, especially one who’s in this type of situation.
I really liked the way Kingfisher drops us into this world. The fairy world is so cruel and alien— the whole reason the story happens is that they think it’s a fun game to kidnap changeling babies from rival clans, and leave them in the human world to both hurt humans and be cruel to the child and its clan. There’s a lot of division within fairy, as well. The greenteeth are looked down on because they are (admittedly) kind of gross, and in fairness: sometimes they eat unattended children! But they showed Toadling love and care, and her love for all of them really shines through.
I definitely recommend checking this book out — it’s a different take on Sleeping Beauty, with characters you’ll grow attached to and a world that you’ll wish you could return to.