My first T. Kingfisher book, and certainly not my last, since with this one the author turned me into an instant fan – and with good reason, given that I found the combination of fairy tale elements, tongue-in-cheek humor and delightful characters quite irresistible.
Marra is a princess in a small but pivotal realm set between two larger ones that are in a constant state of conflict: as the youngest of three daughters, she sees her eldest sister Damia married off, for political expediency, to the son of the northern realm king’s, only to learn that a few months into the marriage she died as the result of a fall from a horse. Her middle sister, Kania, is then chosen to marry that same prince Vorling, in the hope that an heir will seal the alliance between the two realms; then, to prevent the possibility that a child from Marra’s eventual marriage might upset the balance, she is sent to live in a convent.
Rejoining her family for the christening of Kania’s daughter, Marra discovers – to her horror – that her sister is living in a nightmarish situation with a violent, abusive husband whose only goal is to produce a male heir, after which Kania’s life might become worthless: fearing for her sister’s life, and enraged by Vorling’s treatment of her, Marra decides to remove him from the equation, and to fulfill that goal she seeks the aid of a dust-wife (a sort of sorceress dealing with the dead) who sets her on three apparently impossible tasks before lending her help. On the course of her journey of vengeance, Marra ends up collecting a ragtag group of allies, consisting of the aforementioned dust-wife (and her demon-infested chicken), an apparently goofy godmother who is everything but, a former soldier enslaved to a merchant in the goblin market, and a dog made of bones – oh, and a chick endowed with a sort of magical GPS qualities 😉
Nettle and Bone mixes the classical elements of the quest with those of the found family, wrapping the result in an atmosphere that blends seamlessly darkness and humor, fear and whimsy, and that turns what might look like a “been there, done that” reading experience into something unique and compelling. Most of the credit goes of course to the characters, both as individuals and as members of the group: as they get to know each other in the course of the journey, they also learn to trust their respective gifts and put them to use toward the final goal, and in this way allow the reader to see what makes them tick and appreciate the skill with which the author trust them together.
Marra might not have a high opinion of herself, probably because her family never considered her of great use (except as a second-hand replacement for her older sisters), but when we meet her she’s already more than halfway through the tasks set by the dust-wife, and we are immediately presented with her determination and resilience, qualities that endeared her to me from the very start. I like the author’s choice of introducing her in medias res and then backtracking to the past and the road that brought her to that point: it’s an excellent way to showcase her emotional and personal growth from the contented almost-nun, who found joy in the simple pleasures of embroidery and tapestry making, to the resolute avenger of her sisters. There is a sentence that encapsulates that transformation very well, and shows how even the more unassuming, self-effacing person can find the courage to act when necessity arises:
[…] watched Vorling’s face and realized that she had never hated before now. This must be what this new feeling was. It took up so much space in her chest that she did not know if she could breathe around it.
Marra might be burdened by self-doubt, fears – mainly fostered by her family’s treatment of her as something of an afterthought, or an inconvenience – and by an overwhelming guilt for not having understood sooner the danger represented by Vorling, but she compensates those traits by not giving up even in the face of apparently impossible obstacles, and in the end she becomes a surprisingly (for the times and background in which the story is set) feminist character, particularly when she understands how women are endangered by the role that this world has saddled them with:
[…] the history of the world was written in women’s wombs and women’s blood
a consideration that I found even more pertinent in these recent times….
The dust-wife and Agnes the godmother earned my instant sympathy, and not only because they are older women (Crone Power!!! 😀 ) but because the combination of dry humor from the first and apparent absent-mindedness from the second offered many occasions for amusement – and here I feel compelled to mention the demon-infested chicken that’s the dust-wife’s constant companion and whose pointed squawking calls often underline a given situation in a delightfully fun way. A special place must however be reserved for Bonedog, who literally stole my heart and was one of the best non-human additions to the story.
I did not expect to enjoy this story so much: what on the surface might have seemed a fairy-tale retelling ended up being a compelling adventure with a lot of heart at its core, and it’s my hope that other books from T. Kingfisher will prove equally engrossing and satisfying in what will be my own journey of discovery through this author’s works.