Reclaiming Power: Ava Reid’s Juniper & Thorn

Ava Reid’s bestselling debut The Wolf and The Woodsman garnered praise for its compelling characters, immersive and layered world, and for the sheer power of Reid’s writing. Now, a year later, Reid brings us to a new gothic world, prose absolutely shining with baroque style—an old tale retold in her own distinctive, sharp, bittersweet voice.

Juniper & Thorn is many things, but it is not an easy story told or read. Reid has been upfront about how difficult this was to write and the content warnings therein. But through darkness and abuse, through violence and trauma, there is victory: strength, love, freedom, and light at the end of a long, long tunnel. In this masterful retelling of The Juniper Tree, Reid brings all her talent to bear as we meet Marlinchen, her two sisters, and their cursed, monstrous father living in an otherworldly garden at the heart of a city on the verge of change.

Marlinchen is the youngest daughter of the last remaining wizard in Oblya, a sprawling Eastern-European inspired city on the knife’s edge of industrialization. Gifted with magic like her sisters, Marlinchen cannot see the future in pools of water like Undine, or concoct alchemical potions like Rose. Marlinchen, at a touch, can read the hearts of people around her, a talent her father forces her to make use of for money, making it so any skin touched is painful when it is not profitable. Trapped within their estate, Marlinchen sneaks out one night to the opera, to see this city her father hates and is terrified of, to see the lives of her sisters who think she is fragile hearted and childish. Marlinchen is the only one of them truly beloved by their father, who cooks and cleans for him in place of their mother, dead by his hand in a moment of arrogant magic. It’s in the city that she meets and falls desperately for Sevastyan, an ethereal and handsome dancer, who is hiding secrets and pain of his own. From there, nothing is the same again, especially as word gets out: a deadly monster stalks the streets of Oblya and no one is safe.

To say more would give away one of the best books I’ve read this year. From page one, I could tell that I was in expert hands. There is prose of many kinds that appeal to me in many ways as a reader, but first and foremost is confidence. It’s one of those ephemeral things about writing; you know it after only a handful of pages. And with Juniper & Thorn, I knew Reid had it, this boldness of style and wordplay and observation. The world Marlinchen inhabits with its magic and monsters, its gilded trimmings and rank shadows, all painted expertly in only a few pages. When I tell you I was delighted by Reid’s prose, it is only because she continued to outdo herself chapter after chapter. Able to shift with ease, almost imperceptibly, from character observation to a crime scene to horror most foul to internal struggle, Reid’s utter command of the page kept me up for many nights past my bedtime, if only to luxuriate in the writing itself.

But good writing is just ink on the page if there is no story to infuse the words with; Juniper & Thorn is a story of survival, first and foremost. It is not an easy story, but it is a story worth telling. As Marlinchen gains more awareness, growing as a person, a daughter, a sister, and a young woman, she begins to understand the truth of her life. Her father’s love is not a ring on a chain, it is an iron collar around her throat. Her sisters’ love for her, while present, does not outweigh their own wants and desires, does not come before their own scars and pain. Marlinchen’s own desires, her vision of a life with Sevas, her value in her fellow man, her physical desires as well as her emotional needs. These are not virtues she should drown in her own sense of self-hate, but things she should be celebrated for, lifted up, even.

And most importantly, her pain and abuse, her betrayals and scars and violations, are not tricks of her mind, are not lies uttered by men who use her for what they wish; her abuse and violations, and yes, anger, are real. Real, real, real. This is a story which must be grasped for with both hands, tight as fists, and a story of survivors reclaiming their power, their personhood, and their very souls with each breath. That Reid is able to punctuate this intense story with moments of light and levity, young love and the enchanting feel of freedom, only showcases her talent alongside the truth that even at one’s darkest hour, there is still hope. There can still be joy to come, even if it tastes just a little bittersweet on your tongue.

Juniper & Thorn is one of my favorite books of the year and I know I’m not alone in that sentiment. Reader after reader has found something in this book that rings true to their heart, resonates with their experience; I know I have. While The Wolf and the Woodsman made her an author to watch, this novel cements Ava Reid as an author not to miss. I have been telling everyone I can about this book, and I now tell you: Juniper & Thorn is out there waiting for you to read it and be seen in a way you’ve been aching for. Please go and read it.

Juniper & Thorn is available from Harper Voyager.
Read an excerpt here.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.


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