Young witch Marlinchen and her sisters live under the iron thumb of their father, a wizard intent on preserving the old ways and keeping his daughters safe from the degradations of the rapidly changing outside world. But when Marlinchen falls in love with ballet dancer Sevas, she begins to chafe against her father’s rule. We talked to Ava Reid about her unique Eastern European-inspired world and the gruesome fairy tale that inspired her sophomore novel.
Juniper & Thorn is inspired by the “The Juniper Tree,” one of the more obscure stories from Grimms’ Fairy Tales in which a woman murders her stepson and the father eats him. What drew you to this story?
I was always beguiled by its unofficial moniker of Grimms’ darkest fairy tale. There are a lot of horrific and grisly stories in the Grimms’ repertoire, many with the same themes. There’s cannibalism in “Hansel & Gretel,” murder and bloodshed galore in classics like ‘Red Riding Hood’ and “Snow White.” So what sets “The Juniper Tree” apart?
One thing I noted is that there are very few quintessential fairy-tale tropes in “The Juniper Tree.” It’s a strangely quiet, intimate story about domestic violence within a single family.
Once I came to that realization, it seemed most honest to make this retelling a gothic horror novel. It did not feel sweeping in scope or appropriate for an epic fantasy setting. I wanted to maintain this thread of bleak, almost claustrophobic violence, which is the core of the gothic genre. That unnaturalness and upending of a foundational expectation—that parents should love and care for their children—is what makes “The Juniper Tree” so horrible, and what makes Juniper & Thorn firmly a horror novel.
Despite the fact that Juniper & Thorn and your debut novel, The Wolf and the Woodsman, are set in the same universe, they feel like very different stories. Did your writing process or sources for inspiration change between the two?
I like to think of The Wolf and the Woodsman and Juniper & Thorn as fractured mirror images: If Woodsman is about the pain of being excluded from the narrative, then Juniper & Thorn is about the pain of being forced into the narrative, acting out the same rigidly defined role over and over. So while they are very different books that span different subgenres, the common threads are, I think, what makes an “Ava Reid book.”
As for the writing process, by dint of the fact that Juniper & Thorn was the second book in my contract, I had to write it fairly quickly and did so in a month. It changed very little from its initial draft. I had a much stronger sense of my identity as a writer and a very clear idea of what I wanted this book to be from page one.
While Juniper & Thorn is set in a fictional world, it’s obviously influenced by Eastern European culture and especially the conquest of parts of the region by Russia. Why did you set your story in this context?
Eastern Europe is the setting of many major contemporary fantasy novels, but with few exceptions, these books present an Eastern Europe that is bleak, wintry, remote, forested and very culturally homogeneous. I was intrigued by writing an Eastern Europe that was different: wind-chapped steppes, black sand beaches, boardwalks, smoke-chuffing factories, vibrant with urban life, diverse and dynamic. Early 20th-century Odesa, Ukraine, the city upon which Oblya is based, was considered the jewel of the Russian empire. It was an entirely planned city that became a regional hub of immigration, export and industry. It is also a city where a large number of Ashkenazi Jews lived, including my own family.
Enormous change—industrialization, urbanization, immigration—was disrupting traditional lifestyles, often violently. This setting was fundamental to the story I wanted to tell. I like to set books during periods of upheaval, uncertainty, transformation and violence, where what has always been is not synonymous with what will always be.
The conflict between modernity and magic bleeds into the sisters’ lives in a lot of different ways. Do you think the kind of magic you depict in Juniper & Thorn can coexist with modernity as we think of it?
Magic in Juniper & Thorn represents the old world, a world that is regressive and stubbornly resistant to change. When Marlinchen gives examples of her father’s transformations, they are always instances in which he turns something dynamic or technologically advanced into something lifeless or outdated: a swan into a swan-vase, an electric lamp into a candle. His transformation is reaching backward while the city around them leaps forward. I think it’s inherently anti-modernity. It parallels the way a lot of contemporary European ethnic nationalists imagine their countries’ mythic pasts’magical, in touch with the natural world and of course devoid of any ‘foreign’ or ‘corruptive’ element. Is there a place for this way of thinking in the modern world? Unfortunately, yes, but ideally, these prejudicial, violent attitudes would go the way of the spinning wheel.
Eastern European names are all about diminutives, a nickname formed by adding -sha to the initial syllable of a name. In a book that draws from those cultures, why did you make the majority of your characters’ names defy this custom?
I wanted to set the Vashchenko family apart from the rest of society as much as possible. They live an outmoded and traditional lifestyle, and the rigidity of their names, which eschew diminutives, represents this attitude of isolation.
Surnames with the suffix –enko are uniquely Ukrainian, first recorded in the 1400s. Unlike most other Russian and Ukrainian surnames, they do not change with grammatical gender. Ordinarily a father whose surname is Sorokin would have a daughter surnamed Sorokina. But I chose the name Vashchenko specifically because it doesn’t change with gender, to further represent the total dominion Zmiy has over his daughters.
Despite the fact that this is ostensibly a book about witches, there is precious little magic of the wand-waving variety. Instead, your magic is at turns visceral (Marlinchen’s divining ability is all about touch) and existential (Zmiy’s curse). What inspired you to make a magic system that is so sparse and yet so threatening?
I often think about what separates dark fantasy from horror, because while The Wolf and the Woodsman is a dark fantasy novel, Juniper & Thorn is very clearly horror. And I always return to the idea that fear is different from horror. Fear is staring down a man with a knife; horror is staring down a monster made of knives. Horror shifts your view of the world, your view of yourself. It is something beyond comprehension. So the magic in Juniper is—by intention—a bit blurry around the edges. And I think that’s what makes it frightening.
There are very few physical demonstrations of Zmiy’s magic, even though he makes plenty of threats. Marlinchen begins the book convinced that her father is all-powerful. The fear that he instills in her is real, but whether it is the result of physical, tangible magic is uncertain. This uncertainty is the nature of horror, and it’s also the nature of abuse. Marlinchen is gaslighted and manipulated into a state of bewilderment and insecurity, unable to trust herself or her perceptions. A more ambiguous and elusive form of magic felt fitting for a book that’s so much about psychological abuse.
While the characters (Sevas in particular) insist that they are not in a fairy tale, there are a lot of elements of Juniper & Thorn that use the mechanics of such stories. How did you toe that line between being inspired by a fairy tale and creating something completely new?
Fairy tales remain essential parts of our culture because they contain themes or lessons that feel universal, even aspirational: Strangers are dangerous (“Red Riding Hood”), beauty is goodness (“Cinderella”), justice is always done (take your pick). These beliefs are so fundamental that they are rarely ever questioned or even remarked upon. I wanted to write a book that dismantled as many of these foundational assumptions as I could. Sevas, a stranger, is in fact Marlinchen’s savior. Marlinchen, plain-faced, unremarkable, is the story’s heroine. The world of Juniper & Thorn is by design deeply cruel and unjust. Once I had my list of tropes and mechanics, I began trying to take them apart. So while I was obviously inspired by fairy tales, my goal was always to turn them on their heads.
In several scenes, Marlinchen talks about her storybook-infused views on family, such as the dangers of having sisters or the fact that you can have a kind mother or a mother who’s alive but not both. Why do you think these themes are so ubiquitous in fairy tales?
Folklorists and anthropologists have had hearty debates on this subject. One defining element of fairy tales is their simplicity: There are archetypes, not characters, the settings are always vague, and the plots are straightforward. As Marlinchen says, they are stories that aren’t meant to be questioned. They are answers in and of themselves. Italo Calvino defines a fairy tale by its brevity and concision of language. They occupy a strange space in our culture that seems to be outside the realm of logic or realism—yet they have their own logic that is seductively easy to swallow.
Juniper & Thorn is a recrimination about how fairy tales are weaponized as instruments of oppression and abuse, and I do believe that is often true. At the same time, I’m not ready to surrender fairy tales entirely, to give them over to the Zmiy Vashchenkos of the world. I think certain motifs occur and remain because of our common humanity. It’s easy to see the strains of misogyny, patriarchy, antisemitism, etc., as nefarious—and they are—but they are also evidence of a shared past. Reminders of this common humanity can be powerful, restorative and brimming with hope.
Your descriptions of the ballet, in particular of Sevas’ skill as a dancer, are breathtaking. What drew you to the imagery of dance?
Ballet is an important part of Russian culture and Russian national identity, particularly in the early 20th century, when the book is set. Iconic ballets like ‘The Firebird’ and ‘Swan Lake’ draw from Russian folklore and fairy tales, and of course, both feature imagery of birds and themes of transformation’so it seemed deeply fitting.
I also thought a lot about ballet as both an art form and a sport; it requires incredible physical strength and an almost ascetic level of dedication, especially to achieve the success that Sevas has. But unlike many other sports, aesthetics are crucial to its performance. Ballet’s emphasis on beauty, fluidity and effortless grace while camouflaging the physical toll it takes on the dancers knits together very well with the larger themes of the book.
Do you think that Marlinchen would have eventually rebelled if she hadn’t met Sevas? Where would they both be now if they hadn’t met each other?
It’s honestly impossible for me to conceive of these two characters apart from each other, because I wrote them to be soulmates: They understand each other instantly to the deepest possible degree, and even though they appear quite different on the surface, they are perfect mirror images. They have been trapped, misused and pushed to the bleakest point of desperation, and that’s when they find each other. I think it’s easy to see Sevas as Marlinchen’s knight in shining armor, but she rescues him just as much as he rescues her.
Photo of Ava Reid courtesy of the author.