Alphabet of Thorn
By: Patricia A. McKillip
In the kingdom of Raine, a vast realm at the edge of the world, an orphaned baby girl is found by a palace librarian and raised to become a translator. Years later, the girl — named Nepenthe — comes in contact with a mysterious book written in a language of thorns that no one, not even the wizards at Raine’s famous Floating School for mages, can decipher. The book calls out to Nepenthe’s very soul, and she is soon privately translating its contents. As she works tirelessly transcribing the book — which turns out to be about the historical figures of Axis, the Emperor of Night, and Kane, his masked sorcerer — the kingdom of Raine is teetering on the brink of chaos. The newly crowned queen, a mousy 14-year old girl named Tessera who wants nothing to do with matters of state, hides in the woods as regents plot revolution. The queen’s destiny, however, is intertwined with Nepenthe’s ability to unravel the mystery of the thorns.
This is the second book I’ve read by Patricia A. McKillip (the first one being Ombria in Shadow (review)). What I love about her books is that she’s able to construct this wondrous, elaborate fantasy story and contain it in one volume. The premise of this novel sounded really interesting so I was looking forward to it. May contain some mild spoilers ahead!
Once again McKillip constructs this amazing world in which these characters inhabit. It feels magical, ethereal, straight out of legend and yet it there’s a complex political system operating in the Twelve Crowns. It’s a clever idea, actually, and there’s a bit of political intrigue that weaves in and out of the story. The settings of Tessera walking down to the cliffs against the sea is a romantic, haunting image that I couldn’t get out of my head while reading. The Floating School for learning magic was also intriguing and then there is of course the royal library. You could just feel the age of the place with talk about the endless books, the little enclaves where the librarians can work and the possibility of getting lost in there. It’s a world to get lost to.
The story will appeal to book lovers in the same vein as Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (commentary or Zusak’s The Book Thief. Nepenthe’s growing obsession over the book written in a thorn-like language is essentially her enthrallment over an old story. I also love the overlap between myth and history and it does touch on themes such as the notion of who writes history and how accurate the portrayal is from the truth. The set-up of the story is quite interesting as well, going back and forth between Nepenthe’s, Tessera’s and Axis & Kane’s respective stories. There’s a little twist that’s too good to mention in this review but it really makes the story really interesting, epic, even eerie.
The characters that populate this novel and their respective roles in the story was also interesting. I love the concept of the mage who is so strong and who has lived so long that she no longer remembers those early days when things were new and still a little daunting. Bourne was a particularly interesting character because of his abilities; I’m surprised he wasn’t utilised more at the climax of the novel, from all of the characters he seemed to have the most potential in playing a role at the end. There could have been a bit more character depth for most of the characters–especially the principal characters, Nepenthe and Tessera–but the story moves at a reasonably good pace and it’s interesting enough to overlook some of the character development.
Overall Alphabet of Thorn is a wonderful novel with such a rich, sprawling setting and a plot that grabs you from the first page. I highly recommend this novel to readers who enjoy fantasy and who enjoy a good novel.