Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am a great fan of T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) and this is one of her best. She writes quiet stories with practical, sensible characters who take the cliches of a genre (in this case, the fairy tale) and turn them inside out.
The first chapter immediately hooks the reader: the protagonist, Marra, is building a "bone dog," wiring together bones of various dead canines in the "blistered land," and bringing the finished skeleton to life. Of course you want to know more: who is Marra, and why is she doing this? The second chapter goes back and begins the tale of Marra's life. She is the third daughter of a queen whose two older sisters were married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom for political reasons. But her beloved oldest sister, Damia, died a few months after the wedding under mysterious circumstances. The second sister, Kania, was then married to Prince Vorling to fulfill her country's obligations, and Marra is sent to a nunnery to be held in reserve. But Kania seems to be pregnant far too often, and when Marra visits her after the death of her firstborn daughter, she sees the bruises Kania's husband has left, and hears of her sister's hellish life. So Marra, by now a grown woman of thirty (the characters all being adults, including two older women, is one of the best things about this book; there's no teenage angst here, just grownups doing grownup things), vows to find a way to free her sister. As the back jacket copy aptly says: "This isn't the kind of fairy tale where the princess marries a prince. It's the one where she kills him."
To do this, Marra enlists the aid of two older women: the nameless "dust-wife," who brings a demon-possessed chicken along with them on the journey (said demon chicken has a pivotal scene at the climax) and a fairy godmother named Agnes, who takes the tropes of fairy godmothers and stands them on their heads. Marra also has her bone dog, and along the way she and the dust-wife visit a goblin market and free a warrior, Fenris, who will do the actual slaying of the prince (and who becomes Marra's romantic interest). This unlikely group learns to work together and all have important roles to play as the story progresses. Marra is not exactly what one would call a kickass protagonist--those roles, to my delight, fell to the older women, Agnes and the dust-wife--but it is her love of her sister and her stubborn, dogged determination (along with her ability to decipher a code of embroidery stitches) that carries her through to the end.
This story is dark in places, but it also has a great deal of sly whimsical humor. The scene where Agnes uses a just-hatched chick to find the group a place to stay in the capital city of the Northern Kingdom is a laugh-out-loud delight. I can't resist quoting a bit of another scene, at the very end where Marra, the dust-wife, Agnes and her chick Finder rescue Fenris:
"How is Finder?" asked Fenris, stemming the flow of words.
Agnes rummaged around in her scarf and produced Finder, who was half asleep and clearly indignant at being awoken.
"You need to train him to sit somewhere else," said the dust-wife disapprovingly. "Otherwise you'll have a rooster who thinks he should dive headfirst into your cleavage when he wants to roost."
"It's been a while since any man wanted to dive into my cleavage," said Agnes. "It might be a nice change."
"Not when the spurs grow in."
"Oh well, probably not."
This is not a story of wizards or superheroes doing over-the-top things, but rather flawed, realistic, relatable people in extraordinary circumstances, who fight and stumble and muddle through and get things done. It's utterly delightful, and I highly recommend you pick it up.
View all my reviews