There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story.
As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison.
Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming…human or demon. Princess or monster.
The story of the Shah’s twin sister came to the people of Atashar as most rumors do, as a drifting set of jokes and have-you-heards that combined and recombined themselves slowly into a single tale: a poisonous girl with the blood of a div moving in her veins, a burden to her family, living in the shadows, cursed and reviled.
But unlike most rumors, this one is true.
Soraya knows fear in the shape of her own face. She felt it in her poisonous blood, an iron weight she had borne for so long. But it was a familiar feeling: the nagging sense that she was teetering on a knife’s edge, and all it would take was one push in the wrong direction and she would surrender to the deepest pull of the darkness that prowled inside her.
For years, Soraya has walked the edges of her curse, looking for a crack, but it held on. Until Azad, a handsome young soldier captures a female div named Parvaneh, and all the hope Soraya had shut out comes roaring back in. Parvaneh might be the only one who can show Soraya the gaps between the bars of her curse, but to escape her life, Soraya might have to tear a hole in her family’s.
Aren’t you made for death?
The premise promises a story that bears the indentations of a dark and twisted fairytale with all the rich density of horror, a tale that gathers Persian mythology into an exhilarating antiheroic slant, a world where the truth of who is right or wrong is as cold and unreachable as the stars—and the potential is definitely there.
The novel is heavy on the foreshadowing: the story often feels like a clock winding tighter as the ending draws near, and the world—though only delicately sketched since the author does not explain or engage with every aspect of its nature—is sharpened with urgency. There’s a suggestion of a trapdoor waiting under every page, and the possibilities bristled in my thoughts.
Soraya is an interesting protagonist. She was shot through with that dark, smoky core of poison, and it sung in her. It bloomed power in her blood, and made her something more than human. It made her unstoppable. A kind of awful pleasure sliced through Soraya at the realization that she’s far more powerful than she’s ever given herself credit for, a question winding around her like a rope: “What would she allow herself to become?” The helpless girl, locked away and withering on the vine of life? The quiescent serpent, ignoring the coiled thing inside her, that gathering of something hard and unyielding? Or the girl made of thorns as long as spears and as sharp as needs, with a sting like fire?
When the tilted emptiness that has settled inside Soraya begins to fade, replaced by stubborn determination, I wanted—abruptly and with an absurd intensity—for her to kindle it, to shield and nurture that flame until it takes far more than a single breath to blow it out. And for a while, I thought the story would balloon in that direction. But the narrative often retreats into a flimsy plot populated with characters that could have been more substantially fleshed out, and culminating eventually into a big reveal that’s obvious from the book’s earliest pages—and one that isn’t all that gripping in the first place.
Ultimately, that’s my biggest quibble with the story—that it cries out for a more challenging, better developed execution of a really involved and interesting premise. Still that’s not enough to put a permanent dent in the novel’s spell. As the story powers forward, and Soraya is forced to brush with her moral code, the novel probes, painstakingly, at Soraya’s desire to be just, to somehow behave well despite the contradictory desires of the heart. The author also affectingly articulates the ways that humanizing and dehumanizing those we love can be flip sides of the same coin. Here, I wish the novel had dwelled longer on the sapphic romance that blossoms between Soraya and Parvaneh who, amid the swirling chaos, have looked at each other and found a possibility of something.
All quibbles aside, this was a solid read. I just wish I enjoyed it more.