Representation: Extremely minor nonbinary character
Published on: 26th April 2022
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.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~curses can be more useful than blessings
~don’t doubt the moth
~almost-nuns get shit done
Nettle & Bone is as readable as all of Kingfisher’s books – I finished it in under 12 hours – but it felt like a bit of a let-down. Which I think is mostly due to the amount of hype it’s gotten and the expectations I had going into it, because it is not a bad book! Not at all.
It’s just that I was expecting to be blown away, and I wasn’t.
In a lot of ways, Nettle & Bone feels like someone turned the dial down on the Kingfisher persona to make her work more approachable for first-time readers; it’s a lot less weird, and much less funny, than anyone who’s been following the World of the White Rat books is going to expect. It also felt much…not darker, but grimmer, than anything I’ve seen from Kingfisher before – which is an odd thing to say, I know, because all of her books deal with real-and-rough topics. But the vibe was different here. Maybe because it’s built around marital physical abuse, and never takes it anything but seriously (as is only appropriate)? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another Kingfisher book that dealt with as dark a realistic issue – most of the time, the Serious Issues are…either not quite as serious, or a little bit removed from what the average reader can expect to ever experience. Clockwork monsters and death mazes are awful, but most of us will never run into either, will we?
As usual, Kingfisher’s characters are wonderfully human, immensely relatable in a way fantasy characters often aren’t. Marra is a princess, but only on paper; she’s been raised in a convent and eventually makes a space for herself as the healer’s assistant. She’s no good with fancy things or crowds or people in general, really – and she has absolutely no idea what to do when she discovers, almost by accident, that her sister’s husband is abusing her. That helplessness is painfully relatable, and I thought it was handled (and portrayed) very well. But she does eventually latch onto the idea of seeking help from a dust-wife (a kind of graveyard-keeper crossed with a witch), and from there the adventure unspools.
There were glimpses, here and there, of Kingfisher’s signature whimsy and weirdness…but surprisingly little of either. Both the dog of bones Marra creates as one of her Impossible Tasks and the demonically-possessed chicken played extremely small roles; the delightfully strange but somewhat unnerving Toothdancer we only meet for a moment. The visit to the Goblin Market was probably my favorite part of the book, with all the non-humans and their magics on display, Kingfisher’s imagination clearly given free rein. Other than that, there was one brief aside about how Marra’s kingdom believe that the souls of the damned are devoured by crabs, and that was…kind of it? There wasn’t a whole lot of wonderful weirdness/weird wonder here, which was really disappointing.
I do think the synopsis is hugely misleading; the Impossible Tasks take Marra a few pages to complete – they’re certainly not the focus of the story. (Unless you count killing a prince as an Impossible Task, which, fair.) Also, although I’ve referred to it as an adventure, describing Marra’s travels that way is stretching it a bit. She goes to find the dust-wife, they go to the Goblin Market, they pick up a couple of friends along the way, and head to the prince’s city. (One reason this book is so short is that Kingfisher, sensibly, fast-forwards through the actual travel parts. Despite that, she still manages to have all the relationships develop believably.) And finally – I wouldn’t really call this a book about sisterhood. Marra and her sister don’t really have a relationship, and the general impression is very much that Marra would go to these lengths for anyone – the fact that the woman who needs help is her sister isn’t really relevant. That made me like Marra more, but it does mean that Nettle & Bone isn’t really about the powers of sisterhood.
It’s not at all a bad book; it was extremely readable, even the grimmer bits. But it’s nowhere near the level of any of Kingfisher’s other books, in terms of addictiveness or humour or strange-but-delightful-ness. I don’t know how readers who are new to Kingfisher will feel about it, but for me, after Swordheart and Stranger in Orcus and The Raven and the Reindeer? After all those, Nettle & Bone is a let-down. It’s definitely not the book I’d give to someone who’s never read Kingfisher before.