Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher
Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone (2022) was exactly the book I needed to read when I read it, so I am grateful to it and the writer for that. Kingfisher’s original fairy tale is a satisfying read at any time, with characters who engaged my imagination and find original ways to solve their problems.
Marra is a princess, the third daughter of a small kingdom with a deep-water harbor, nestled between two powerful warlike nations, each of whom covets the harbor. Marra’s mother marries off her eldest daughter, Damia, to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, which is the less vulnerable of the two bellicose kingdoms because it is protected by magic. Shockingly, almost immediately, Damia dies, supposedly in an accident. Marra’s next sister, Kania, marries the prince, and she lives. Kania has a child, and Marra and her mother visit for the delivery and the christening. Marra sees bruises on her sister’s arms, and while Kania is in labor, Kania warns Marra that if she dies, Marra must flee before their mother can marry her off to the prince. Marra resolves to take things into her own hands to save both her sister and her niece.
Marra is not a conventional princess. She was sent off to a convent when Kania was married, and learned to excel at embroidery and mucking out goat barns. Only one of those things is a conventional princess skill. When her niece dies, Marras takes matters into her own hands, seeking out a powerful magician, a dust-wife, to help her create a plan to kill the prince and save her sister.
The dust-wife gives Marra some tests, and when Marra succeeds, accompanies her to find a way to free Kania from her brutal husband. In a goblin market, they free Ferris, a warrior from another nation, and journey to find the godmother who blessed Marra and her two sisters, because the dust-wife has determined that the magic that protects the Northern Kingdom is generated by a godmother’s blessing.
The dust-wife and her demon-chicken companion, Ferris, Marra’s godmother Agnes, Marris herself and her bone-dog companion make up a motley crew of questors indeed as they seek a way to free Kania from danger. From the blistered lands where the dust-wife first sent Marra on her tests, to the labyrinthine crypts beneath the castle of the Northern Kingdom, the settings are wonderful, strange, intriguing and frightening. The stakes are high and the dangers real, and the banter is quick, the whimsey delightful. Marra is a princess any woman can relate to. Probably my favorite character was Agnes, a kindly, dithery godmother who is half-fae, and is afraid to bless any child with anything other than good health, in case she curses them by mistake.
“…Agnes’s magic thinks she ought to be six feet tall with eyes like a starving wolf. That Agnes’s body didn’t comply is just an oversight, so far as the magic is concerned.”
“She’s a very wicked godmother, isn’t she?” asked Marra.
“Evil magic could flow through her like a river in full flood. Fortunately for the rest of us, here’s a lot of Agnes in the way.”
If anything disconcerted or jarred me about this wonderful book, it was the tone shift from the first chapter, which takes place in the blistered lands, to the subsequent chapters. The darkness of the blistered lands gives Marra a different feel from the character we come to know. There’s a bit of bait-and-switch here. It works, but I noticed it in the moment. The horror of the blistered lands is never explained. Neither is other magic, but because the book opens with them, they took on a bit more importance in my mind.
Nettle and Bone is still a five-star read, and a book I’ll recommend to many.
I loved this book! I’m usually very disappointed by fantasy, but loved Kingfisher’s writing. Can you recommend similar books?
If you don’t mind books that are more obviously horror, try her folk-horror books, THE HOLLOW SPACES and THE TWISTED ONES. They are creepy weird horror, not gory horror.
You might try Alix Harrow; THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, and THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES. It’s a kind of alternate history.
Right now I can’t think of anyone else whose writing comes close to Kingfisher’s unique voice.