The first thing you need to know about The Thorn and The Blossom is that it’s accordion-bound, which means it’s absolutely beautiful. (Or maybe you’re not as awed by unusual binding methods as I am.) The downside is that it’s also a little bit impractical: despite its hard covers, I couldn’t hold it on one hand, and I didn’t risk taking it on my commute. But at a table or in bed, it’s easy to handle.
The second thing you need to know is that The Thorn and The Blossom is a love story, one that interacts with the accordion binding: on one side is Evelyn’s story, on the other is Brendan’s.
I really like this, because too often a romance is only showed from one side, with the result that it’s an un-balanced view. Love is, after all, two-sided (or more). In the best cases, I’m left wondering what’s going on in the other partner’s head. In the worst cases, one of the partners is left in a weaker position by how the narrative treats their experience of love. For instance, the viewpoint character might be uncertain if their love is returned, while the other character is aloof or remote (or, frankly, abusive). The accordion binding de-privileges the romance narrative and puts Evelyn and Brendan on equal footing.
You can start with either viewpoint; I picked Evelyn’s. In retrospect, as her narrative answers a big question in the story (why does she run away?) and Brendan’s lacks a similarly big answer, I think reading Brendan’s first might be best – but I’m sure there’s an argument for the reverse.
Really, it’s a love story. What makes it interesting is that it plays out in the context of a folktale: the Tale of the Green Knight. The SFF element in this book is slight – there are faint lines that tie the romance to the folktale – but it would be easy to read this as a non-fantasy.
Unfortunately, the fact that it’s a love story is where I found myself not enjoying it as much as I’d hoped. I’ve read a number of Goss’ short stories, including her collection, In the Forest of Forgetting, and I love her weird, beautiful, subtle take on folktales and life. I was hoping for more of that in The Thorn and The Blossom, but, as I said, the SFF element is very slight. And sadly, I am not a romance fan.
That said, I very much appreciated the way Goss sidestepped many of romance’s worst tropes. Love does not solve everything; it is clear that Evelyn and Brendan will have to talk through their problems, just like the rest of us. Love at first sight is just the beginning. Whether or not you believe that the Tale of the Green Knight affects the course of their relationship, it feels very real. There was only one moment I found cheesy: when Brendan sees a halo of light around Evelyn’s head.
My main criticism of this book is its length: it’s a novella divided into two halves, with the result that in many places it feels much more like a summary of events than a richly-detailed experience; we are told more about their feelings than we are shown. Love and life being so complicated, The Thorn and The Blossom would have benefited from being longer.
Ultimately I found it charming and pleasing, but not my cup of tea. It left me very much looking forward to what Goss does when she has a bigger canvas to work on. (And in the meantime, isn’t it time for another Goss collection?)