Alphabet of Thorn: A mage, a scholar, and a woman who reveals magic

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip

On a seaside cliff near a castle which houses the kingdom’s library, a baby girl was left to be raised by the old librarians. The girl’s name was Nepenthe. While translating a book whose language was written in fish and similar tokens, when she is told of an ancient book needing to be translating. Deep in the nearby woods is the mages’ floating school, where a handsome young man gives Nepenthe a book that will change her life, a book written in a language of thorns. As she learns to decipher the thorns, Nepenthe and her friend Laidley unravel the seemingly impossible history of Axis and Kane, “the Emperor of Night, and the Hooded One…at his side always, who opens doors between stars.” As Nepenthe digs deeper into the history, the young queen, Tessera, in the castle above must gain the help of an ancient king hidden in a cave deep within the cliff rock, and control the magic within she has ignored all her life, to save her kingdom from an ancient evil, and a present threat. With poetic analogies and picturesque landscapes, Alphabet of Thorn is a fantasy world to be savored, and a gateway to a life-long love of an eloquent author.


The Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, starting with Dragonsong, is a fantasy series that also involves time and space travel “like crossing some immense, black chasm in one step,” but with the assistance of dragons, or their smaller cousins, the fire lizards, who can travel between and from there to any place their rider decides.

In The Magician’s Nephew, the first of the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis, two children travel to a wood between worlds, and into other worlds as well, including Charn, which is also like “the still world seemed to be holding its breath,” as it sometimes seemed in the library to Nepenthe.

Mages, wizards, and speaking trees are items that can be found in Lewis’ friend’s books, The Lord of the Rings, and it’s prequel, The Hobbit. There, speaking trees are very wise and called Ents.

The concept of traveling across time as Kane does, “like a pattern on a cloth when you fold it,” is an old one echoed in many stories, including the children’s book A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and nostalgic adult book by sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Other fantastic books by Patricia McKillip that I can personally recommend include: Wonders of the Invisible World, Od Magic, The Bell at Sealey Head, In the Forests of Serre, The Changeling Sea, The Winter Rose, and The Book of Atrix Wolfe.

The Recipe:

Scones are very rustic and old-world. They conjure the image of fresh milk from a pasture, sweet cream whipped by hand in the days before electricity, and a cast iron oven from which baked goods come out piping hot and satisfying, before we cared about counting calories or tracking points. Scones come from a time when food was made to sustain our bodies for hard labor, and it was a convenient treat that could be wrapped and carried in a pocket a long trip, perhaps to the forest wherein floated the mages school, or in the pocket of a queen walking down long stone steps to a cave that holds an ancient sleeping queen.

Oatmeal, or boiled oats, was mentioned several times as a food which the librarians ate for breakfast, often with dried fruit and nuts. However, fresh fruit tastes best, and strawberries were a food favored by the odd,  bear-lion magical creature kept by Felan. Also, sweets and fruit were enjoyed by Axis and Kane in his private chamber- the only place where Kane was ever truly free to be herself. To combine all these ideas, I chose a recipe for:

Strawberry Oatmeal Scones

Strawberry Oatmeal Buttermilk Scones by Homemade by Holman
Strawberry Oatmeal Buttermilk Scones by Homemade by Holman

By Homemade by Holman; adapted from Joy the Baker, originally from Baking: From My Home to Yours by Dorie Greenspan


1 egg

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 2/3 cups all purpose flour

1 1/3 cups old fashioned rolled oats

1/3 cup sugar

1 T baking powder

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

Pinch of ground nutmeg

3/4 cup fresh strawberries, chopped

1/2 cup plus 2 T unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. Whisk together the egg and buttermilk and set aside. Combine the flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg in a mixing bowl. Add the cold butter pieces and cut in with a pastry blender or your hands, until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour in the buttermilk mixture and stir with a stiff wooden spoon until just incorporated. Gently mix in the chopped strawberries. The mixture will be very sticky.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly flour surface and gently knead 8-10 times and press the dough into a disk about 1 1/2 inches thick. Portion the dough into about 12 wedges or balls and transfer to the baking sheet. Bake for approximately 20 minutes until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool about 10 minutes before serving.

Discussion Questions:

1. For Nepenthe, words and languages are capable of making time stand still. There is “no past, no future, no place I can’t go.” Did this book make you feel the same? If not, what stories do? How can this be a dangerous deception, especially for the busy modern reader? What about for Nepenthe or the other librarians?

2. Nepenthe spoke of someone who “had dropped a word like a weight on a plumb line straight into her heart and she had recognized her name.” Do you think that was because there is power in a name, or was it because of the magic she was born with and into that made her name powerful? Can names affect children in any way, perhaps as a predictor of a trait or a behavior? Go around the room and discuss each other’s names and their meanings and see if there is any truth to that idea. Also, later she says her true name is said, and it is “something with a shell in it, or… a moth.” What items or creatures would oyu want in your name, if you could choose.

3. How was it true for Axis, as his father warned before his own death, that “whatever weapons you possess may also be used against you”? How did this apply to Kane, to Vevay?

4. Vevay notes that it was a miracle “she had survived her younger self,” especially being at least as powerful (and perhaps far more manipulative) than Tessera. How do you imagine her as a young mage? Do you think the same of yourself, amazed that you survived your younger years,  or is that often only true for certain types of people?

5. Tessera complains that she cannot say whatever she wants, or even what she truly thinks, because she is queen. But a prince’s uncle informs her that “If you have nothing to lose, you can say whatever you want.” Does anyone in the story have nothing to lose, or the freedom to speak as they want? Do we? Why?

6. Tessera, overwhelmed with responsibilities, longed “just to try to find some place where no one would want anything from her, not a smile, not a word.” Is this introversion, or exhaustion? Did any place like that exist for her? Where do you go to seek peace in anonymity?

7. In defense of Nepenthe’s obsession with the book of thorns, she told Bourne that “we do not choose our passions.” In light of the ending, was this true for her, was her obsession something chosen for her? Do some people tend to have a certain proclivity toward certain passions and obsessions as a result of upbringing? What about genetically-can we be predisposed to obsession as Nepenthe perhaps was?

8. Why would it be a “useful quality in a mage,” to be “more woodland animal than human”? Which characters do you think possess this ability, other than Tessera, of whom them were speaking? Why is it that, as Bourne noted, “some of us have a harder time forgetting our humanity?”

9. Vevay spoke of “Fire murmured…whispering things she had long forgotten.” What secrets, or memories, do you think fire reminded her of? Would it have been kind and offered advice, or harsh, and admonishing with warnings? Have you ever personified fire before, or thought what it might tell you if it could speak?

10. One of Vevay’s sources of conflict with  Tessera is that it is “easier to know what you are than to remember what you were, so long ago that what you were then lived in an entirely different world.” Are these the only reasons Vevay has trouble relating to Tessera? Is it this way for all older people when confronted with younger generations, especially the greater the age gap? Why?

11. Vevay notes Tessera’s “inexperience had been transformed into a kind of wisdom unsullied by reality.” Is it possible to have wisdom exclusionary to reality, or must wisdom come from experience, and therefore must have a connection to reality?

12. The mages’ school in which Bourne was trapped was one of the many tests students had to endure, having layers and levels of previous mages’ spells woven into rooms. Are there any creative examples of this that you can think of that weren’t mentioned in the book? What sort of test would be appropriate for each of the magic-wielding characters? Similarly, as Felan’s room is elegantly described, what type of room would fit Vevay best, or Tessera or Nepenthe, if they were allowed to choose anything they pleased to surround them?

13. Felan makes an interesting point about rulers, that each one “has always had to contend with contention. The possibility of war if they weren’t making it themselves.” Has it ever occurred to you how many wars some rulers have stopped or prevented, that perhaps the public was never told about? How does this make you see rulers in a new light, whether you are an activist or a pacifist?

14. “You’d think that being queen meant that you wouldn’t have to do the things you disliked,” a sympathetic army commander tells Tessera, yet this is obviously not true for her. Is it for anyone in a position of power? What about for the wealthy, the poor, or children- is anyone free from such a burden? Would it be good to remember the responsibilities and pressures of others as we approach them for our desires?

15. Do you think that Bourne is right about the thorns, that “every thorn is some form of sorcery apart from the word it makes…saying one thing to her eyes and mind, and another to her heart”? Is this part of why she is so obsessed? Has anything ever done this to you-a book, song, poem, historical event, river, tree, landscape, etc., where others couldn’t understand, but you felt it was speaking to you differently, as if it had a secret to share with those patient enough to listen?

16. Is the beginning of magic, or innovation for that matter, to “Let your imagination run and follow it”? Think of innovators like Walt Disney, who created a world of magic, or famous inventors and writers who gave us new concepts. Is this the key to real life magic? What magic have you been holding back from running after?

17. Is there something powerful in the trio of Bourne, the mage, Laidley, the scholar, and Nepenthe, the woman who reveals magic? After finishing the book, is this still an appropriate nickname for her, or can you think of one better?

18. How did it show excellent planning and strategy the way that Kane handled the inevitable unveiling of “her face,” and Axis’ patient punishment of her abuser? Could you think of a more efficient way to have handled it while still not giving away Kane’s true identity, or was their way perfect?

19. Did this book make you, like Bourne and Nepenthe, look at “life and time and history from a  different angle”? What did you think of Kane’s concept of time like a wheel with spokes? Did this make it easier for you to understand?

20. Was Axis’ “unending ambition to find death and conquer it or become it,” like any other famous historical rulers? What makes a man’s ambition so insatiable-is feeding it with each new victory to blame, or is there more to it for them? What about for Axis specifically, is it also a matter of having one place where he can, in a sense, be exposed next to Kane and have no one stop them from being together? Is being with her part of his desire for immortality?

21. What did you think of the novel’s final revelation of Nepenthe’s connection to the thorns? Do you agree with her decision, or would you have chosen otherwise? Why?



5 Comments Add yours

  1. Pamela Lorenzo says:

    Great job

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