A.G. Slatter’s 2022 The Path of Thorns is a stand-alone secondary-universe gothic horror novel.
Asher Todd is the latest Morwood family governess. She has been hired on the strength of credentials as glowing as they are fraudulent. It’s true that Asher has many skills, but they aren’t the ones for which the Morwoods hired her. She has her own reasons for taking the position, reasons that would horrify the Morwoods if they knew.
The Morwoods wanted a faithful governess. What they got is a witch wearing another woman’s face.
The Morwoods are wealthy, powerful, and vain … and also impressively dysfunctional. The children, Albertine, Connell, and Sarai, haven’t yet been tainted by the family dysfunction. Their father, Luther, however, is an utter brute. His wife, Jessamine, has tried and failed to resist him. Also a member of the household: Jessamine’s mother Leonora. Leonora could manage Luther (she controls the family fortune) but her failing eyesight keeps her confined to her bedroom.
Asher hopes to use her position to attain two goals: learning what happened to the previous governess and avenging injustices that the Morwoods inflicted on Asher’s mother (affronts long past, but still rankling).
Readers will agree that Luther and Leonora deserve whatever happens to them, but will likely feel that revenge shouldn’t include Jessamine and the children. Will Asher take a comprehensive revenge, or will she show some mercy to the innocents?
The book traffics in some common horror and fantasy tropes: governess in isolated mansion, evil rich and oppressed poor, dire family secrets, an established church that burns werewolves and witches. There’s even the obligatory fire, in which something burns to the ground. Isolated mansions should invest in better fire prevention.
What isn’t genre standard is that in this world same-sex relationships are perfectly acceptable, at least for the secondary characters.
Several of the main characters are complete monsters. Not just Luther and Leonora, but even Asher’s mom Heloise proves to be a piece of work. Much of the novel features unpleasant people doing horrible things to each other. This would be depressing if it weren’t for that fact that Asher, herself a former victim of abuse, is capable of empathy.
Fans of gothic novels should enjoy this contribution to the genre. The writing is competent, the narrative flows smoothly, and some of the characters are appealing. The ones that aren’t? Well, Asher is there to deal with them.