The Path of Thorns by A. G. Slatter
Titan Books, pbk, £8.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
Wow, Gothic, or what? Well, obviously gothic, as in the opening pages of The Path of Thorns, would-be governess Asher Todd is trying to get to Morwood Grange. However, the last of the carriages that have transported her this far is behind her, journeying elsewhere, so she must make the end of the trip on foot. A storm rages overhead, and something is dogging her footsteps and stalking her through the trees. She might not even live long enough to reach the manor house to take up her new position in charge of the three Morwood children, and we’re only in the first few pages of the novel.
Blimey, what an opening, full of dread and foreshadowing and written in gorgeous prose, and worse is to follow, but beautifully told throughout, as Asher arrives at the Grange laden-down with a bag full of secrets and a promise to be kept, but while Asher has a few secrets of her own, she’s almost an amateur compared to the Morwood family in keeping secrets, and yet, somehow she knows something about them, but how can that possibly be?
Here, with The Path of Thorns, we are in Slatter’s Sourdough world, a place and time she has mined extensively in short story collections and her novel, All the Murmuring Bones. Slatter is a multiple award-winning author, and you would be missing out if you didn’t delve into those other stories at your convenience, even if you have no prior knowledge of them. You can still enjoy The Path of Thorns. And speaking of stories, like any good governess, Asher has to recount a tale or two, and some of those tales are excerpts or variations of some of Slatter’s previously published Sourdough stories, but there are new ones here and with titles like The Wolf’s Wife, The Mother Wolf, The Wolf’s Children, you can guess we are firmly in fairytale territory with lessons to be learned and dark fates avoided.
Given this is a world of her own creation, The Path of Thorns is wonderfully detailed and delightfully twisted, Slatter bringing to life the proud inhabitants of the Grange, their servants and the inhabitants of nearby Morwood Tarn, but apart from the character-building and the physical surroundings, there is always an undercurrent of the other or a world filled with the supernatural and the fey. Yes, this is a gothic tale, combining ghosts, mysteries to be solved, doomed romance, and family secrets, and while these are staples of the gothic tale, Slatter’s real inspiration for this novel is some artwork she saw at the 2014 World Fantasy Convention which sparked off a question in her head: what if Jane Eyre met Victor Frankenstein? And here she gives us her answer.
As for the Jane Eyre part of the equation, Asher is a wonderfully conflicted character, driven by her promise and more than a smattering of revenge. She might not be the greatest governess in the world. Still, Asher knows her plants and herbs and soon puts that knowledge to good use by providing cures and medicines for those who are suffering. However, she better be careful, for the world of Sourdough is not kind to women, and women can still be burned at the stake for witchcraft. Asher makes herself useful by helping everywhere she can and sometimes assists in performing some very dark tasks, all the while digging for the truth of what happened to the previous governess and cultivating a few friendships that she might need later, and boy, is she going to need them.
The Path of Thorns is a welcome return to the Sourdough world in the company of one of the most intriguing, spiky, brave, flawed characters you are ever likely to meet. Recommended.