This week I’m back to the theme of modern writers inspired by traditional Fairy Tales. In this case, one particular tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm – `The Goose Girl’. Do you remember the plot? A queen sends her daughter to marry a prince who lives in a far away land. The princess rides a white horse called Falada and carries a handkerchief stained with three drops of her mother’s blood for magical protection. During the journey the princess’s maid refuses to wait on her. After the princess loses the magic handkerchief, the maid threatens to kill her if she doesn’t give up her fine clothes and her beautiful horse. When they arrive at the royal court, the maid claims to be the prince’s bride and tells the king to give her lazy servant some menial work to do. The true bride is forced to look after the king’s geese and deal with the unwanted attentions of a goose boy, while the false bride enjoys a life of luxury. Can the real princess regain her identity and win back her prince?

In his recent book `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’ (see my post of May 2014), Philip Pullman comments,`the princess/goose girl has to give second place, as far as enterprise and vigour are concerned, to the wicked maidservant who deserves a longer story.’ He adds, `It’s hard for a storyteller to make an attractive character out of a meek and docile victim who doesn’t argue or fight back once…’  I have to disagree with Pullman about that since two other Fantasy authors, Shannon Hale and Intisar Khanani, have written novels based on this Fairy Tale which each make the meek princess into a very attractive heroine. Where Pullman sees a docile victim, Hale and Khanani see a brave young woman who endures a dramatic change in circumstances with dignity and grace. Hale’s book, which is simply called `The Goose Girl’, was published in 2003 and is the first in a series of interlinked novels known as `The Books of Bayern’. Khanani’s novel `Thorn’ came out in 2012 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. I like both of these surprisingly different novels but I’ve decided to concentrate on `Thorn’ this week and to recommend one of Hales’ `Books of Bayern’ next time.

`Thorn’ begins in the small country of Adania, whose Queen is being visited by the King of the much larger and more powerful land of Menaiya. Gentle Princess Alyrra of Adania is despised by her mother and viciously bullied by her brother. She prefers to spend her time in the palace kitchens or in the company of a friendly wind. Alyrra is shocked to learn that the King has come to ask her hand in marriage for his son, Prince Kestrin. A strange magician appears in her bedroom to warn her that the enemies of Menaiya may try to attack her during the journey to the capital city, Tarinon. One of those enemies is a terrifying sorceress who has an implacable hatred for the whole royal house of Menaiya.

Alyrra is sent off to Tarinon with a lady in waiting, Valka, who has a particular grudge against her and a wild white horse who is an unkind gift from her brother. During the journey, Alyrra discovers that her lady in waiting is in league with the sorceress. A spell forces the princess to swap bodies with Valka and never to tell anyone what has happened. Once they reach Tarinon, Valka blackens the character of her `lady in waiting’ and gets her sent to work as a goose-herd. At first, Alyrra’s only ally is Falada, who reveals that he belongs to an ancient race of talking horses. Alyrra, renamed Thorn, makes friends among the animal-keepers and accepts her humble new role. It is only when she learns more about the threat to Prince Kestrin, and the dark side of life in Tarinon, that Alyssa/Thorn is forced to take up the challenge of becoming a princess again.

The original tale of `The Goose Girl’ may be short but it is packed with bizarre and mysterious details such as the spell of the bloodstained handkerchief, the white horse who is able to talk even after his head is cut off, and a protective wind which the princess can summon (contrary to what Pullman says, she does sometimes fight back). It is fascinating to see how distinctively Khanani and Hale have interpreted these details so that two books which, inevitably, have much the same plot have ended up very different in tone. `Thorn’ is the darker of the two novels, which probably makes it truer to the source material. When I was a child, `The Goose Girl’ was never one of my favourite Fairy Tales. I was upset by the malevolence and cruelty in the story, which culminates in an inventively nasty execution. Khanani has created a fictional world in which such an execution becomes terrifyingly plausible and, as in the original, innocents suffer and die. After becoming a goose-herd, Alyssa finds out how hard life is for the working classes in Tarinon and how little hope they have of obtaining justice even when they are victims of appalling crimes. Once she crosses paths with Red Hawk, a notorious thief/vigilante, the narrow line between justice and revenge becomes one of the major themes of the story.

`Thorn’ isn’t a perfect novel. The strange experience of living in someone else’s body isn’t fully explored, the invented Red Hawk subplot doesn’t really go anywhere, and I found it annoying that the reason for Valka’s grudge against the princess isn’t revealed until near the end of the book. Still, Khanani writes with passion and she has the gift of making you care about her characters. Right from the first chapter I ached with sympathy for shy Alyssa whose self-confidence has been destroyed by her abusive family. Khanani implies that it is not so much the spell that keeps Alyssa quiet about what has happened, as her genuine belief that ambitious Valka is more suited to the role of royal bride than herself. Alyssa has never wanted power but that, as Falada points out, only makes her `a better princess than most’. Noble Falada acts as the voice of conscience, urging Alyssa to honour the betrothal vows she made to Kestrin and to strive to set things right in the kingdom she is destined to rule. Later, when Alyssa is almost overwhelmed by the evil and suffering around her, one of the animal-keepers sensibly tells her to, `Start somewhere and keep going.’

Even if you are thoroughly familiar with the Grimms’ `Goose Girl’, you’ll find that `Thorn’ has surprises in store. This is partly because Khanani has added several subplots – including an important one explaining the curse on the royal family of Menaiya – and partly because of her original interpretations of the leading players. Her `wicked maidservant’ character, Valka, is almost as insecure as the princess she has replaced. Valka has no empathy for others and refuses to take responsibility for her own actions but that makes her easy to manipulate. `The Goose Girl’ could have been rewritten as a Romance with the disguised princess as a Cinderella-figure, but Khanani’s Kestrin is no Prince Charming. He is clever, calculating and verging on ruthless. Alyrra is afraid of Kestrin and the scenes in which he probes her identity crackle with tension. She warns the prince that he cannot bully or cajole her into trusting him and her assessment of his character becomes a matter of life or death. At no stage is this the sort of conventional love story that a commercial publisher would probably have demanded. Khanani is an `Indie author’ and `Thorn’ is about a woman finding her place in the world and accepting the painful responsibilities that come with it. In spite of Pullman’s opinion of the goose-girl princess, I hope you will find Alyrra a heroine worth reading about. Until next time…..