Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy
Published by Tor Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.
Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.
On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra's family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.
“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.” “I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?” While the quote is from The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the sentiment is one that could easily be attributed to Marra, the central character in Nettle & Bone. Throughout this proto-fairytale, Marra frequently bemoans the unfairness of her world, even as she continually puts on her world’s equivalent of “big girl panties” and just keeps right on dealing with that unfairness.
I call this a “proto-fairytale” because it reads like just the kind of story that will be a fairytale someday, after the events have passed through the hands of this world’s versions of the Brothers Grimm AND Walt Disney in order to shape, knead and mold this “adventure” – in the sense that an adventure is something terrible that happens to someone else either long ago, fair away or both – into the kind of morality tale/object lesson that fairy tales end up being once they become “tales” rather than “history”.
This is also a tale that can be looked at as either “this is the house that jack built” or it’s opposite where “jack” goes on his journey of tasks and errands so damn mad at the situation that sent him that by the time he reaches his destination he tells everyone to stick it where the sun don’t shine.
In other words, Nettle & Bone is a tale of accretion, where Princess Marra starts out with a vague plan that takes on weight, depth and followers as she travels. And it needs all of those things and people because her task is large and she is small. She plans to save her second sister – the one who doesn’t even like her all that much – from certain death at the hands of the evil prince who already murdered their oldest sister AND threatens their parents’ kingdom.
Which is another way that this is a story about fairness, privilege, and the actual powerlessness that afflicts people in positions of seeming power – at least if those people are female.
So Marra is on a quest to save her sister. She thinks she needs to kill the evil prince, so that’s the task she sets herself. But she needs magic to counteract the prince’s magic, so she goes looking for a witch. The witch sets her three impossible tasks, not unlike many such stories. And not unlike those stories, Marra completes the tasks she has been set. She makes the cloak of nettle thread, and brings a dog made of bones back to the witch. The witch herself presents Marra with the third, the moon captured in a jar because she’s so astonished by Marra’s completion of the first two tasks that she decides to help her with her quest.
And they’re off! Along with the witch’s familiar, a hen with a demon inside her. Otherwise known as Strong Independent Chicken, a bird who really exists and to whom this book is dedicated.
But the plan is barely a sketch – and one not nearly as easy to fill in as Marra originally thought – or hoped. Along the way they add two more members to their already assorted party – a soldier they free from the Goblin Market, and Marra’s family godmother, who is both a bit more AND a bit less than she seems.
Off they go in search of, not adventure, but a way of bringing a little more fairness into their world. Marra thinks they’re going to kill the prince. The soldier is just happy to be free of the Goblin Market. The witch is coming to speak to the dead and the godmother is coming to magic the living. The chicken and her demon are along for the ride, in the hopes of causing whatever mayhem they can on the way. And there’s plenty of that every step of the way!
Escape Rating A+: I was looking for something by T. Kingfisher AKA Ursula Vernon to review as part of this Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week because so far I’ve loved everything of hers that I’ve read, especially A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and her Saint of Steel series (Paladin’s Grace, Paladin’s Strength and Paladin’s Hope). And because I enjoyed every single presentation she did on the recent JoCo Cruise – especially her stories about, you guessed it, Strong Independent Chicken. So I was looking for a book to review as a gateway drug for the giveaway and Nettle & Bone will be out later this month. So here we are.
Like the other books of hers that I have read, there’s a lot going on in Nettle & Bone and the story feels much bigger underneath than it is on the surface. On the surface, there’s the adventure of it all, which is marvelous and a perfectly good way of getting into this story and the rest of her work.
But underneath that there’s all this other stuff going on. There’s a lot in this story about the contrast between power and powerlessness, and the way that the perception of privilege depends on where you are in the neverending pecking order of the universe. It’s something that Marra comes to have a wider and more expansive view of on this journey. That’s partly because she’s a princess who is almost but not exactly a nun. While she thinks her mother the queen is powerful and can fix everything, she’s also aware that it is easier to travel as a nun than either a princess or a woman. Princesses are hedged ‘round with restrictions, while women in general are always subject to the whims and physical size and power of men.
Her whole quest is about reconciling the fact that those rules apply in the end to princes and princesses and even kingdoms. Someone is always more powerful and someone is always abusing that power.
At the same time, this is a women’s quest from start to finish. Although they have a soldier with them, and Fenris is certainly useful – as well as easy on the eyes – everything that happens in this story is driven by its female characters. The plan and the solutions they come to are not about men and arms and armies – it’s about women and soft power and seeing the truth of things. With the result that soft power turns out not to be soft at all, because power is a hard thing to seize no matter who is doing it.
In the end this is a story about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, even when you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t in the least bit sure you’re going about the right way of doing it. Marra’s quest is to save her sister, and she does. At the same time, her sister also saves herself. And both the kingdoms. It’s never easy and it’s always on the knife edge of failing – but it gets done.
And it’s utterly marvelous along every single step of its impossible way.
~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~
As part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week I’m giving away one copy of ANY one of T. Kingfisher’s books, in any format, up to $30 (US) in value. That should be enough to get the winner any book of hers they want, including the new and coming titles like Nettle & Bone and What Moves the Dead. If you don’t know where to begin I highly recommend A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Paladin’s Grace or the subject of today’s review, Nettle & Bone as excellent places to start!