May 25, 2023


The Thorns Remain. By JJA Harwood. Magpie Books. $17.99.

     There are so many stories of humans interacting with the fairy world, for better or worse, that coming up with a new angle on the topic seems well-nigh impossible. JJA Harwood deserves considerable credit for trying to do just that, even though, in the end, her attempt falls rather flat, undone by her own less-than-skillful management of the story she tells.

     The Thorns Remain, Harwood’s second novel after The Shadow in the Glass, partakes of a kind of fin de siècle doom and gloom from the start, although actually set just after World War I, in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic (specifically, in 1919). Pervaded by the notion of things changing, of an inescapable rush to the future if not necessarily to doom, the book has an atmospheric opening in which protagonist Moira Jean’s attempt to recover some lightheartedness after the death of her fiancé leads to her encouraging five of her friends in a fading Scottish Highland village called Brudonnock to join her in a whisky-fueled nighttime dance in the woods. Bad move. The celebration attracts the fae and, in particular, their leader, a prince known as The Dreamer.

     The fae are forces of nature here, not inherently good or evil even though they may seem that way by human standards – this portrayal of their fundamentally alien nature is one thing Harwood manages very well indeed. The humans are handled much less well, the personalities of Moira Jean’s friends never fleshed-out and the events involving her with the townspeople even less clear, especially when the townsfolk (who have known Moira Jean all her life) quickly turn against her at one of several crucial junctions.

     Moira Jean’s possession of an iron medal, given to her after fiancé Angus’ death, protects her from the fae during the dance and gives Harwood the basis for engaging the human with the fae prince in a bargain that Moira Jean intends to use to save her friends. For his part, The Dreamer insists on tithes of all sorts from Moira Jean – an echo of the basis of the legend of Tam Lin, in which the fairies give one of their people to Hell as a tithe every seven years. The Thorns Remain touches on elements of the Tam Lin tale repeatedly – it is specifically referred to by one character early in the book, and then shows up within the narrative as a book-within-the-book – but Harwood’s story is not bound by it. The Dreamer’s original motivation is obscure and ill-defined: essentially, the fae miss having humans around as the world changes, even though their interactions with people are sketchy at best. As the novel progresses, The Dreamer becomes increasingly intrigued by Moira Jean – but this is not to turn into a human-fae romance, either. In fact, Harwood’s ability to navigate a story that incorporates but differs from standard tale-telling involving humans and the fae is a major strength of the book.

     What does happen is that Moira Jean’s personality develops interestingly she strives to fulfill the demands of The Dreamer, even if her motivation for trying so hard to free her friends is less than compellingly presented. Moira Jean’s fleshed-out character makes her much more interesting and believable than Ella, the protagonist of Harwood’s prior book, and is, again, a strength of the story here.

     But all this is really not enough to make The Thorns Remain compelling. The pacing of the story is uneven, with some scenes stretched out to the point of tedium and others rushed through for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, the latter situation applies to the book’s conclusion, which is so abrupt and leaves so many questions unanswered that it almost seems as if Harwood was not quite sure what to do to wrap things up. Moira Jean’s character progression has come to something of a halt when she needs to rely on her mother, the village’s de facto doctor, to help her break her tendency to form co-dependent bonds – by implication with her now-dead fiancé and almost, but not quite, with The Dreamer. Instead of growing to the extent needed to find her own way, Moira Jean needs an external push to move toward a future of her own making – a disappointing element of non-progress.

     There are also elements of the book that seem clearly tacked-on; in fact, Harwood makes it clear what she is going to do in a front-of-book dedication that thanks her friends for urging her to “make it gayer.” Yes, that sort of thing is de rigueur in a lot of writing today, trendy and oh so with-it, but here it is simply awkward – especially when The Dreamer suddenly changes into a female in order to have Moira Jean turn out to be bisexual because…well, there is no “because” within the confines of the book – only in the world in which Harwood wants her book to be accepted.

     The portions of the book devoted to Scottish folklore and to Moira Jean’s relationship with her mother, although germane to the story, also feel largely tacked-on rather than integrated into the narrative. The concept of The Dreamer returning Moira Jean’s friends one at a time – requiring a tithe of his choosing for each – is effective, as is the notion of a time limit on Moira Jean’s attempts (all the humans must be redeemed by Beltane [May Day], six weeks in the future, or be lost forever). But again and again, it is easy to question just why Moira Jean would bother with these imperfectly delineated characters – and why she seems so devoted to a village whose residents are scarcely kindly disposed toward her. Of course, the fae are not kindly disposed toward her, either, despite The Dreamer’s increasing fascination with her. On a “meta” basis, this may be part of the book’s point, and if so, The Thorns Remain is in fact more interesting conceptually than in execution. Looked at as a tale of the entire world changing – which it certainly did after World War I, a conflict that led to the death of four empires (Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German) – the book can be read as showing people (and fae) trying desperately to cling to the old ways of life while moving into the unknown of a world that has changed forever. That is a meaningful and rather deep “meta” reading of Harwood’s book, but if this is what Harwood intends, she does not quite have the narrative skill to pull it off. The Thorns Remain ends up having engaging elements throughout, but an unevenness of pacing and characterization that renders it more interesting for what it could have become than for what it turned out to be.

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