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I went into FROSTFLOWER AND THORN forewarned, so I feel compelled to forewarn in this review: this fantasy novel depicts rape and torture. I'm normally not a fan of reading novels that feature rape because it's often used to bring angst to the people around the survivor without focusing on the consequences to the survivor him/herself. There are also authors who use rape as a way to create a gritty atmosphere for their world in much the same way that one might hang up cheap paper streamers at a party to create a festive air, and with much less thought. However, this book neatly avoided both pitfalls and handled the subject with sensitivity. Oh, and it was awesome, on top of that.
The story takes place in a world where only women are warriors. This sounds like a very feminist concept, but actually, women are warriors because the religion in this world teaches that men are too valuable to risk themselves. I found the idea interesting, because it justifies women dominating the battlefield without hand-waving at the logic that women are generally physically weaker than men. Plus, to me, it is not that different from our own world-- it’s only that the manner in which men are put forth as being of greater worth manifests differently.
An older version of the cover.
In any case, it is against this background that we meet Thorn, a badass warrior with a sharp tongue and a strong sword arm. Thorn is dealing with the consequences of being a woman who enjoys sex and isn’t afraid to indulge, but lives in a medieval society sans reliable birth control: she is in the early stages of an unwanted pregnancy and looking to get rid of it. By chance, she crosses paths with a sorceron named Frostflower. Frostflower offers to use magic to help Thorn get rid of her offspring, and all she asks in payment is the child, himself. Thorn is a little unnerved by the notion of subjecting herself to sorcery, but Frostflower promises that she can make it happen in the space of an afternoon, and Thorn is desperate. She doesn’t have the coin to pay a physician or an aborter, and as a freelance warrior of sorts, she’s not in a position to keep the child even if she had a motherly bone in her body (which she doesn’t).
In this manner are we introduced to the powers of the sorcereri, Phyllis Ann Karr’s version of magic-users. It turns out that one of their abilities is to “speed time.” By tapping into the life force of a creature or a plant, a sorceron can age it forward. Frostflower uses this ability to hasten Thorn’s pregnancy along and safely deliver the child. Frostflower names him Starwind, and it is obvious from the start that she treasures him. The sorcereri take vows of truth, prudence, and purity. They cannot lie, be reckless, or have sex without losing their powers. Therefore, Frostflower had no other way to have a child of her own if she wished to keep her abilities, and it is clear that she very much wanted to have one.
The trouble is, people in this world are suspicious of sorcereri. If Frostflower is seen carrying the child to her retreat alone, people will assume that she stole him, because they know she cannot have had him the natural way. There are also those who would see the child as an abomination if they discovered that he was sorcered out of the womb, so that part is best kept secret. While she does have the power to snatch lightning bolts from the sky and age people who touch her, for the most part, her powers are no defense. The vows of the sorcereri bind them from doing harm, so Frostflower cannot defend herself directly. Grudgingly, Thorn agrees to accompany her to help deflect suspicion. Over the course of the journey, an unlikely friendship begins to blossom between the pair.
Unfortunately, they run afoul of Maldron, a farmer-priest who rules the territory they are passing through. Frostflower and Thorn manage to escape him, but become outlaws in the process. If Thorn is caught, her guts will be filled with stones and she'll be hung on a gibbet to die. If Frostflower is caught, she’ll be raped to strip her of her powers and possibly gibbeted, as well. The story follows the women’s attempts to win free of Maldron, their developing relationship, and the consequences of each having her faith challenged through her association with the other.
Now, I’ve mentioned before that I’m a slow reader who tends to languish over the pages to suss out every ounce of meaning and enjoyment. Well, I finished this book in a week. I couldn’t put it down, or at least not for long. I read it with my morning coffee, and on my lunch breaks. Then when I went to bed, I’d switch on a lamp, pick up my ipad, and go back to it.
The prose is solid, and the characters are well-rounded and relatable. I admired tough, blunt, capable Thorn, and gentle, thoughtful, intelligent Frostflower, appreciating both their virtues and their flaws. In particular, I looked forward to Thorn's point-of-view scenes, because there was something so unique and mesmerizing about this rough-spoken, cynical warrior that I loved being in her head. Some of the secondary characters are also unexpectedly intriguing. Spendwell, a soft, cowardly-seeming merchant, initially seems to be nothing more than one of Thorn’s bed partners. As the plot unfolds, he becomes much more, for good and for ill. And Inmara, Maldron’s senior wife, could have presented as a two-dimensional villain, but is ultimately nuanced and complex. She has her own motives and sympathies, and even when her goals run counter to Frostflower’s, it is hard to dislike her.
The pacing was at least partly to blame for while I churned through this book so quickly. I was heavily invested in the characters early on, which made it hard enough to drop in my bookmark and walk away, but every time I tried to put it down, the tension was running too high and I was too concerned to do so. The action was intense, and ultimately built up to a satisfying ending.
If I had to nitpick and find something about this book that I disliked, I suppose it would be that the mystery created by the climax was never resolved in this book. Without an explanation, it felt either like a convenient development or the setup to a sequel. Given that a sequel exists, that seems to answer that question. Ultimately, if you’re looking for a book with awesome world-building, great characters, and a fine balancing of grit and heart, this is the book for you.