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27 June 2022

#Review - The Path of Thorns by AG Slatter

Book "The Path of Thorns" by Angela Slatter. In silhouette, black branches with thorns linking dark trees. Moving along the branches are figures, again in silhouette - a girl with long hair and a lantern, a dog with head held high, a hunched figure with misshapen limbs.

The Path of Thorns
A G Slatter
Titan Books, 28 June 2022
Available as: PB, 384pp, e
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781789094374

I'm grateful to Titan Books for a free advance copy of The Path of Thorns to consider for review.

The 'path of thorns' is, we are told midway through this book, the path a woman inevitably treads in this world: every step forward, you get a thorn in your foot. 

It's certainly the path that Asher Todd has trodden. Todd was brought up by Heloise, a loving mother if one increasingly disturbed as she sank under illness caused, Todd hints, by a life as a courtesan following exile from her wealthy family. Heloise's relationships with her clients have left their mark on Todd, as well. Asher also despises  the academics of Whitebarrow, who preyed on her mother even while refusing to educate Asher in their sciences and magics (men only, I'm afraid). Despite this she has become a skilled self taught witch - but therefore vulnerable to the Church, which persecutes women such as herself. Each step forward, another thorn.

Above all, though, Asher Todd she hates the family that threw her mother out. 

And now she's found them, and come for revenge. 

The background Slatter uses is this book is her 'Sourdough' universe, which has featured in many short stories and in a previous novel, All the Murmuring Bones (to which there are a number of references here). It's a comfortably vague world, pre Modern in some respects - people use horses for transport - with a degree of magic accepted (though that's increasingly being contested by the Church) and society divided between many small, feudal polities, most of which focus on the local (here the Morwood family and their nearest small town, the Tarn). 

While this world is in some respects culturally advanced with, for example, same-sex couples easily accepted and daughters able to inherit an estate such as that of the Morwoods, male privilege and patriarchy still permeates this story with abusive husbands and lovers, double standards in sexual conduct and a clearly male hierarchy in the Church. Asher will have to step carefully through all this (those thorns again!) as she seeks to shape her new home to her own ends.

There are mysteries here to be discovered - from that first presence Asher feels as she approaches the house - a persona to be maintained (posing as a governess may be absolutely in line with the template for a Gothic novel, but it's not work she's ever done before and the kids have sharp eyes) - and obligations that she has taken on in order to get this far. Conflicting obligations, perhaps. All that even before the house, and its inhabitants, begin to work their own magic, manipulating her sympathies in their own battles and struggles.

The Path of Thorns gives its reader a lot to engage with. A sensible, capable and determined protagonist in Asher, who has a pleasing dash of Flora Poste about her, (if Flora could work magic: perhaps rather Mary Poppins though from the books, not the films). Plenty of mystery in the woods and the house itself. A brooding, could-be villain (though, with themes of domestic abuse, this is one you definitely want to watch out for after dark). Some innocent(?) children to be won over but above all, protected - this in a world where kids who play in the river may find water sprites taking an interest...

The story moves at a fair pace, with plenty of jeopardy and some really nasty magic promised. A book I really enjoyed, though be warned - nobody here is innocent, not even Asher herself, and my abiding thought by the end was very much 'families - who needs them?'

For more information about The Path of Thorns, see the Titan website here.

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