2 stars · book review

review: Heart of Thorns by Bree Barton

2.25 stars | Goodreads review

I got this copy from Fairyloot and I honestly considered pawning it.

Imagine hate-reading 80-90% of this book only to find out the last 10-20% was actually almost good if not for the contrived shift in quality. It’s like I complained all this time only to have my concerns addressed almost point-by-point at the very very tippy tip end of this book. I don’t know whether to be more annoyed that I think I was played or that Barton purposely made the first 80% of this book stupid only to make the ending seem amazing in comparison.


Admittedly, the ending was pretty damn good. What doesn’t feel good is that this book made me wait 90% for something interesting to happen. There’s a lot of speculation and planting of information that clearly doesn’t add up about the Gwyrach/Dujia but rarely do we ever see them in action until very much later aside from Mia’s arrow-extraction. I feel in order to give you an authentic review for this book, I have to split this review up into two parts: You’ll notice there’s almost an artificial change in quality based on the way I talk about it.

Thoughts on the first 90% of this book:
Mia and Science
This is complete drivel. This is an excellent portrayal of “Hollywood Smart,” basically what people *think* smart people act like in movies. I’ve never encountered a more obnoxious portrayal of “book smarts” in YA and I hope it just fucking dies here.

I’m infuriated by the fact that this book expects us, the audience, to think Mia is anything close to the intellectual, scientist, or whatever pretentious title she wants to have. I’m infuriated of the idea that someone who doesn’t know any better reading this book without a basic science background will think this bitch is the next Hermione Granger or Belle.

The straw that broke the camel’s back:

“You speak as if it’s arrogant to seek knowledge. I think it’s the opposite. It takes great humility to admit you know nothing, and you want to learn.”

Out of context, this is a nice aphorism. I would actually agree outside the context of this book. BUT. This is horrible because this is also what pseudo-intellectual dumbasses say when someone calls them out on their bullshit because they never take responsibitlity for their actions due to a lack of knowledge (i.e. their stupiditiy). This is just a line for Mia to excuse her arrogance and actual lack of knowledge when confronted by someone who has the answers she wants. This is so manipulative and frames itself as a goody-two-shoes innocent seeker of knowledge being victimized by someone who won’t give them the answer key. Mia doesn’t do the fucking work for it she doesn’t deserve to have the answers handed to her like someone who feigns helplessness because they’re USELESS. I’ve had shitty lab partners say almost the exact same thing when I called them out for being incompetent. How it’s “not wrong to want to learn.” Nice sentiment, but that’s not what’s actually happening. It’s an ass-cover for your lack of success. These people would bulldoze anyone who had a genuine desire to understand. People who have humility don’t exactly go around bragging about how humble they are when they’re covering up the fact they know jack squat.

This is just like the random inserts of “science” the author includes that bear no importance to the story other than to tell us how SMORT Mia is because she reads and can conveniently explain anything that needs to be explained. You know, forget about field specialization. Even by the rare chance, the writing actually gets the science right, You Should Definitely Not Use This Book To Help You Pass Your Science Classes. Don’t do it. Just don’t. This book treats science like it is fact, as if it is the irrefutable truth, when in actuality it is a process of collecting evidence that may or may not support your predictions. The only thing this book has proven is that the author didn’t pass high school biology and neither did anyone on the team that churned this out.

I’m fuming. I’m fuming.

Oh my god. P. 271

Sight isn’t an illusion. It’s science. It’s the mind interpretting messages from the eyes.

Look technically the statement isn’t wrong, it’s just that biological process of encoding a light signal from your retina to produce the visual perception you see as the end product is not science… The process of figuring out how the heck this works is science. YOU CAN’T JUST CALL FACTS SCIENCE. JESUS CHRIST. But nevermind. Words don’t have meaning anymore.

Overall it’s like the author didn’t even pass HS biology and couldn’t even properly google the correct use of anatomical/biological terms.

The writing is attempting to be pretentious but lacks the capacity to actually be pretentious because:
A lot of facts about science and biology are just wrong. Ah the subtlety of cardiac systole lol is what’s keeping your heart going. I’m pretty sure they also confused the pulmonary vein and artery with each other. There are VARIOUS errors in the science of this book. There are just too many to list and I can’t fact check these with the accuracy of a medical professional.

Portrays science and math as having all the answers when really if we knew everything, why would we need science to further our understanding of the world???!?!?!?! (Note: this attitude from Mia is actually addressed at the very end when she miraculously learns the error of her ways)

– The use of anatomical terms is stilted in dialogue... no one talks like this unless they’re trying to prove how SMORT they are but really aren’t. It’s overexaggerated… How do you know specifically your medulla is the part tearing out of your head?

– Mia reduces language to just grammar rules. While you can learn a lot of sentence structures and replace words to create new sentences, explain idioms as “just grammar rules,” then.

– Mia claims “magic” is not a verb, so now she’s trying to invalidate Merriam and Webster because it is indeed a verb.

– They replace the hard C’s with Q’s in the words necrosis and volcano –> neqrosis and volqano. To sound intellectual I guess. That gave me a good laugh. I’m an microbiology and immunology major, so you best be knowing I laughed a long time when the book described “microscopic animacules” = bacteria. One point they were even described as screaming from pain… bruh, they’re single celled.

– At one point, we’re told:

“But whereas humans had two pulmonary veins, wrens had four, a more efficient circulatory system that allowed them to fly”

…that human hearts have 2 pulmonary veins… we have 4. Two for each lung. Two lungs = 4 pulmonary veins. It also says that because avian lungs have 4 pulmonary veins, rather than 2??? like us plebian humans, they are able to fly. First of all, the reason why birds are said to have higher respiratory efficiency for flight is because of air capillaries, not because they have more pulmonary veins than humans (which is not true if we both have 4??). Also that’s not how you write an appositive because “4 pulmonary veins” does not form a more efficient circulatory system… it’s not equivilant. At all.

Mia and her mom
Aside from Mia being annoying like a teen who just found out what logic was (I guess this is realistic on Barton’s part), we have the mystery of Mia’s mom, Wynna, and the circumstances around her death. In a flashback, Mia’s mother tells Mia about her medical training in Fojo Karcao and the difference in freedoms people have their compared to Glas Ddir – like how men could love men and women could love women. And also there was sex magic and magic is good, unlike how Glas Ddir wants people to fear magic and the Gwyrach (magical women). Alright cool. However, Mia makes a logical jump from “wow queer ppl are free to be queer in Fojo” to “did my mom have a secret female ex-lover who knows magic and tried to kill her” AND SHE ENDS UP BEING RIGHT. HOW THE FUCK? Who put down what Mia picked up?

Somehow Mia ends up being right all along about her mother (the ex lover out for blood, their parents actually loving each other) in a roundabout way that doesn’t make sense. How did she gather that her mom had an ex lover out for blood because she jumped to the conclusion her mom was bisexual just from her mom saying that gay people exist and magic is cool for sex?

Additionally, it’s noted that Mia had always thought her parents were in love. Wynna’s journal entries say that she was in a loveless marriage for penance for what she did to her ex-lover but then she eventually fell in love with Mia’s father anyway because he just loved their daughters so much. Her parents’ story doesnt make a lick of sense. It’s like her mom was forced to be with her dad, but if she truly hated it, she has the power to literally melt his bones. Why put up with this? Find penance somewhere else. And then the mom falls i love with her dad because he’s just such a good dad but the mom feels guilt for enthralling him into loving her. The consent issues are addressed later on, so like she says it doesnt make it right that she forced him to love her so fine. All of this is presented in a post-humous epistolary format so it feels weak and contrived because this is all recounted in Wynna’s diary.

Mia is presented as right about her mom’s love life anyway, which is fine and dandy because only she would be privy to all these observations. The problem is this doesn’t let the reader figure out anything before Mia, and given that this girl can’t study biology quite correctly, I had a hard time trusting Mia’s observations and some of them felt like they came out of nowhere. I thought all her wild theories were supposed to be off-based, but they were mysteriously on-point.

Many times in the flashbacks Wynna tells her the Life Lesson of the book in the form of vaguely cryptic aphorisms. Because Mia takes everything as black or white, which her mother should be aware of, she’s bound to not understand until she’s older and people explain the fucking aphorism to her in one day’s worth of training. I wish YA parents would have honest talks with their kids and treat them like they can handle nuance. Most of the plot is framed around Wynna’s secrets, which could be interesting, if not for the fact many half reveals are conveniently in Wynna’s diary. We do get Angie’s side of this story that helps piece this all together at the very end, but it left a bad taste in my mouth that the truth was stalled out until the very last possible moment.

Mia and Magic and Emotions
Mia is annoying and “logical” (really uses her line of thinking to bulldoze everyone, it’s not the same really). Admittedly, Mia is still quite obnoxious throughout. And its not like I was never an obnoxious Intellectual teen myself. As someone who’s been through a similar arc of not being a dick to people I found intellectually inferior, it was frustrating to see this happen in a character that didn’t really have anything to prove Personally. By personally, I mean her arc revolves around finding out the truth about her mother and being displaced from her lot in life (huntress), though the latter isn’t explored as much as the former, which is more about her family and how she treats them than herself.

For younger readers, it might be an eye-opener because they might identify with this intellectual snobbery and talking down to people more because they think Mia is in the right because she’s That One Teen Who’ll Save the World and sees the woes of her kingdom (but she gets upset when other people also know what she knows???) and that there should be a balance of listening to your emotions and logic. As someone who has already gone through all this IRL, well, this is kid’s gloves. I don’t feel the devastation from Mia in the writing when her life is turned upside down and sideways. Her being obnoxious and stringently “logical” is a defense mechanism when she encounters things she cannot grasp. Objectively, I can see what is being attempted. However, it comes off as more obnoxious for the sake of being obnoxious than anything else until the text has to outright TELL you that it was a defense mechanism. This awkward self-awareness that suddenly activates in the 2nd half of the book just doesn’t feel earned because there seemed to be a glaring lack of it just to keep a feeling of under-baked intrigue. It certainly doesn’t help that a bunch of science “facts” (wrong facts, bad science) are dispersed throughout the book, adding onto the aggravation.

Thoughs on the last 10-20% and the ending
Is the writing actually self-aware?
Beats me. At the beginning of this book, Mia judges her sister, Angelyne, for wanting to be “like other girls” i.e. getting married and having a family and wanting to be a princess and reading romance novels owo and uses her intellect to create her own pedestal to elevate herself above people she deems “unwoke.” This is actually pretty unwoke, because it shifts blame onto the women who lived in this oppressive Glas Ddiran culture instead of targeting those who perpetuated the witch hunts and patriarchy (cough the king and his army of hand-fetish misogynists). Mia also at one point makes tasting authentic Fojo Karacao cuisine all about her and not even mention that the borders of Glas Ddir were closed off with a Very Evident “Make Glas Ddir Great Again” slogan (don’t think I didn’t catch that, Barton). Forget that there’s in-universe xenophobia, you gotta stop and taste to local flavor! On the other hand, I actually appreciate that there was no actual case of xenophobia/racism towards a specific ethnicity iirc shown. But the fact that the borders are closed and there wasn’t really any evidence of that attitude being apparent in Glas Ddir culture was strange. I suppose it’s more based on economical policy in this case, but still.

Given that many of my complaints were directly addressed in the span of the last 30 or so pages of the book, I think Bree Barton IS ACTUALLY aware and purposefully writing Mia to be annoying and unwoke. She pokes fun at her own MC plenty of times, with Prince Quin’s dialogue mostly, and it’s entertaining. The second half of the book really hammers in the fact that everyone around Mia thinks she’s real unwoke to reality.

So yes, even though I hated Mia with a passion all the way until the group returns to the palace, I will credit where credit is due, at least the book is self-aware that Mia likes making others feel small by making herself be a hotshot intellectual TM and she learns that her modus operandi could use a reality check and some tweaks to allow for more balance between the mind and heart. Mia actually apologizes to her sister for judging her and treating her like a victim and Barton includes some great interactions between the sisters. The writing even addresses that it was Glas Ddir’s culture that made all these people do bad and misogynistic things and that people are not black and white in terms of morality. And how theyre capable of doing good and evil. What’s the word?! NUANCE?! IN THIS BOOK?! Wow. I know, I can’t believe it myself.

And as for the reviews I saw addressing the feminism and “sjw-ness” of this book. First of all, get the fuck over the “sjw-ness” just because this book acknowledges that the world isn’t just whites and straights. Yeah, the main characters are white, but there’s a bunch of brown 2ndary characters in the Refuj that stand well on their own. Mia’s childhood friend, Dom, is gay and Fojuen. Mia’s love interest and mom are both bisexual. Ya don’t need a reason for why people aren’t white or straight. But I do admit, it was kind of annoying how they ninja-inserted “and girls,” or “and boys” everytime Quin or somebody was talking about their sexuality. Surely there’s a better way to do this.

Quin
There are so many characters with the name Quin or Nic in YA now here I am thinking “wow, another?!” If Fojuen replaces all hard C’s with Q’s (volqano, neqrosis lmao), then Quin’s name should actually be Cuin because he’s Glas Ddiran. Quin is actually pretty good He gets shafted for a good chunk of the story, but when he has his moments, they’re so strong. This boy loves to cook and play music and loves theater. When he’s cold, it makes sense when he is. Outside of the palace, he’s free from a lot of restraints, so his real personality shines. I honestly wish he were the main character. I actually enjoyed that it frazzled Mia to see that he was clever and pieced things together faster than she did. She did get mighty insecure about his sophisticated vocabulary. I’m not quite convinced of his proclamation of love near the end, but I find it amusing he read the same romance novels as Mia’s sister Angelyne LOL and even quoted it when they kissed.

The ending
I am very conflicted about this book because I hated its guts. I really did. But then everything sucked so hard, the ending could be subpar and I’d still think it was great in comparison. The ending was quite strong and ended on a cliff-hanger. It was actually a pretty good culmination of Mia’s character development, as annoying as she is/was. I’m a bit miffed that the ex-lesbian lover out for blood was really a thing Mia predicted correctly when she has horrible instincts about everything else. Every ex-lover is out for blood, so I don’t blame Zaga. We had to have a Big Bad. There were some major pacing issues that could have been alleviated if there were one more substantial plot development or action midway through to get us over this large hump of Mia and Quin being lost in the forest for like one day and then Mia training to be Dujia for like one day. Maybe then the climax wouldn’t have felt so sudden and the shift in writing quality wouldn’t have been so apparent.

The writing was really strong in the last ten pages. Not only was the reader allowed to figure out the Biggest twist before Mia, Mia finally made a competent decision in response to finding out! The symbolism with the wren, moonstone and snow plum tree was so good, I clutched my pearls. Birds and moons and snow are MY BRAND, and I feel a little dirty for getting excited about it here because I feel like I had a rancid main course to get to a delectable dessert of an ending.

Were there any positives?
One positive thing is that some chapters have different formats than normal – the how to survive the Bride Fall chapters and the dialogue between Zaga and Mia in the darkness are actually creatively done.

The magic system is actually not all bad. When the book stops trying to make bad science happen, it plays into its strengths with the actual Dujia magic at work. The power of the different stones is actually a refreshing contrast to all the “all-powerful magical rocks” that have appeared in fantasy books. It plays very well into the healing and destruction aspects of the Dujia magic. I wish Barton spent more time on actually teaching us the ins and outs of this magic instead of making me read through paragraph after paragraph of bad science. There’s enough room to expand in the sequel bacause Wynna’s fucking alive and one of the best healers ever. I’m quite conflicted on picking the rest of this series up because I was burned so hard over most of this book.

Unfortunately, Angie isn’t present for most of the book. I feel the late add-on of her character added a lot more depth to Mia’s character and arc. I hate that Angie was right about Mia but was sorta misguided with a twinge of evil. Angie’s reveal also brought up enthrallment as bypassing consent thank god.

Overall, a frustrating read with uneven distribution of quality. If you’re in biology, this might anger you. I would really advise you borrow this over buying without reading it first. The science is just so BAD.

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