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Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip
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Feb 19, 2012

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bookshelves: epic-fantasy, fantasy, standalone-fantasy, 3-stars-and-a-half
Read from April 21 to 25, 2012

This book has many of the hallmarks of epic fantasy: a mysterious orphan, a teenage monarch, a shifting point-of-view among several main characters, an existential threat from an enemy with utterly unsympathetic motives. But unlike most epic fantasy, which comes in multi-book sequences, Alphabet of Thorn comprises only about 300 brief pages. Perhaps for that reason, it's only moderately successful.

Nepenthe, a teenage transcriptor in the palace library, becomes obsessed with a mysterious book whose letters resemble thorns. Bourne, a mage-in-training, falls in love with Nepenthe and discovers magical powers he didn't know he had. Tessera, the reluctant queen, tries to grow into her power, while Vevay, an elderly mage and counselor, works to hold things together. Meanwhile, in Nepenthe's book, an ancient emperor and his mage/lover conquer kingdoms. It's a bit much for such a short book, especially with chapters alternating among five main characters. It's hard to get attached to so many characters so quickly, and Nepenthe is the only one I particularly liked. Bourne and Vevay seem bland, and the others just okay. The love triangle is uninspired, but I can forgive that as it's not the book's focus.

But I did like this book, albeit in a lukewarm sort of way; I actually enjoyed it more than Ombria in Shadow, which I rated 4 stars. Alphabet of Thorn includes much more interesting portrayals of women in power, and the story overall makes more sense (except for Nepenthe's apparently deciphering unknown languages from scratch in a matter of days; there's a reason real-life scholars needed the Rosetta Stone!). McKillip's rather dreamlike writing style suits the story well: we do get little details of the characters' lives, but the world itself is hazily drawn, as there's simply not time for much development in a book of this length. And the ending is rushed; Nepenthe has a frustratingly uncomplicated response to a major revelation and makes a crucial decision far too easily.

In the end, Alphabet of Thorn is a decent fairytale-like story, and if I liked traditional fairytales better*, I might have enjoyed it more. But although it doesn't seem to be specifically targeted at younger readers, this one might be better suited for YA's than for adults.


*As opposed to fairytale retellings with a twist, which I do like. Aside from the presence of so many active female characters, this one feels pretty traditional, and I tend to prefer my retellings rather less dreamy and more subversive.
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