by Kristen B.
Princess Marra is kind of a princess in waiting, or maybe it’s more like cold storage. Her sisters, one after the other, have married the Prince of the Northern Kingdom, bringing as their dowry the control of the best deep water harbor and removing the threat of war. If the middle sister also dies in childbed, Marra appears next in line to be married. In the meantime, she’s content living at the convent of Our Lady of the Grackles, where she apprentices to Sister Apothecary and helps with midwifery.
It turns out that the prince, now king, is not so charming. Marra learns how he likes to hurt his wives when attending her sister’s premature labor. Upon digesting some hard realities, this third sister decides to save her older sibling and herself. Although, all she really has is a vague plan to remove some rotten royalty from the face of the earth. Quite honestly, I’d want to kill him, too.
Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher is the best kind of fairy tale. It has all the right characters and doesn’t feel the need to over-explain the deep and weird places inside the story. The novel begins with Marra performing her second impossible task – building a dog from bone and silver wire. Her first involved spinning yarn filled with nettles to make a cloak of owl-cloth, but the story opens as she is desperately trying to complete a canine skeleton in the mandated time. Our sheltered nun proves to be a wonderfully obstinate, straightforward young woman. She accomplishes two impossible tasks before the dust-wife (a witch who tends the dead) takes pity on her and gives her a jar filled with moonlight that Marra can immediately re-gift. The two women, young and old but both fiercely independent, set off on their journey.
What follows is a story that I will surely reread and put on my “keeper” shelf. The adventure begins in earnest at a creepily fantastical Goblin Market and continues, despite all odds or even common sense, to its exciting conclusion at the royal palace. At the hidden market and on the road, Marra makes trades that lead to the completion of her merry band: her now real-seeming Bonedog, a handsome and honorable woodcutter, a (mostly) good fairy godmother, and the dust-wife with her demon-possessed hen. Clearly, the author keeps chickens, because it’s a character in its own right!
Each has a role to play as the quest becomes ever more complicated. Not only does Kingfisher excel at the magical aspects, she also manages to insert enough mundane practicalities to keep the book grounded. The absurdity of every day matters, like eating and sleeping, informs the subversive humor that laces through the story. The slightly snarky observations serve to illustrate the misogyny present in so many classic stories. Here, at least, the youngest princess works to save her royal sister from dying young of the curse of having an abusive husband who holds all the advantages. I laughed, I cheered, and I wanted more.
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball in season (but not all at the same time).