The Book of Thorns

Books

The Napoleonic wars have been fertile ground for historical fantasy in recent years. From the draconic aerial combat of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s wry fairy tale of manners, that continent-spanning conflict provides an ideal canvas for fantastical retellings. It’s sweeping in scope, and is easier to romanticize than more recent wars. Hester Fox’s The Book of Thorns, however, is not about magicians single-handedly winning battles. Rather, it is about two women who can hear flowers. Englishwoman Cornelia and Belgian maid Lijsbeth escape their abusive homes and find themselves on opposite sides of the Waterloo battle lines. Neither woman can change the course of the war. All they can hope for is to somehow find safety and joy in a hostile world.

Fox insists on confronting Cornelia and Lijsbeth’s individual traumas head-on. They bear profound scars and are, in their own way, survivors, although both would balk at being called such. Like Katherine Arden’s The Warm Hands of Ghosts, The Book of Thorns is fundamentally a war novel dressed up in magical conceits—in this case, talking rosebushes. Its villains are selfish, not self-consciously evil; its heroes are genuinely decent people, but decency alone is not enough for them to prevail.

The Book of Thorns has a happy ending, in its own way: Both Cornelia and Lijsbeth find people they love, who love them back and who would never cause them pain. That is a kind of joy, if hard-won. Fox does not hide from the fact that for all the romance surrounding Bonaparte’s exploits, nobody who fought at Waterloo came out unscathed, whether they were breathing by battle’s end or not. But Fox also reminds us that, even in fields tilled by cavalry charges and fertilized with gunpowder, flowers can grow.

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