Published on: 9th March 2021
For fans of Naomi Novik and Katharine Arden, a dark gothic fairy tale from award-winning author Angela Slatter.
'Harrowing and beautiful, this is the grim, fairy-tale gothic you've been waiting for'CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN, New York Times bestselling author of Ararat
Long ago Miren O'Malley's family prospered due to a deal struck with the mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren's grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren's freedom.
A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.
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.
~the coffins have locks and you should be grateful for them
~good girls carry knives
~the mer might be monsters but the humans definitely are
~Witchcraft – so easy, anyone can do it!
~a little blood fixes everything
First thing’s first: this is not a selkie story. I have no idea why it’s being described that way; All the Murmuring Bones features many magical water-creatures, but selkies are not among them. So if that’s what you’re after, you want a different book. (Maybe The Blue Salt Road by Joanne Harris, if you’re cool with having your heart ripped out.)
Which is not to say that All The Murmuring Bones is not a good book, because it very much is. It’s just not about selkies.
Miren O’Malley is the last ‘true’ O’Malley; while offshoots of the family are flourishing, the trunk is very much not. She lives with her grandmother in a manor growing more dilapidated by the day, on the coast, next to the sea that has been the source of the O’Malley fortunes since time immemorial. There are all kinds of stories told about the O’Malleys, and plenty of stories that they tell each other about their pasts, but the fact is that however grand and powerful they once were…they’re really not, anymore.
And Miren is more or less okay with that, until it becomes clear that her grandmother is scheming to marry Miren to Miren’s awful cousin, in order to rejuvenate the family fortunes.
And Miren’s not going to just lie down and take that.
All The Murmuring Bones has a cadence to it, a rhythm and style that is reminiscent of a folktale – something only strengthened by the actual folktales that break up the story, tales from the O’Malley’s book of not-quite-legends. And like a folktale, Miren’s story has a frank and undramatic acceptance of all things magical. I thought the world of All The Murmuring Bones was more or less like something from the Regency period…right up until Miren casually mentions the zombies (she doesn’t call them that) that the carriage-driver has to avoid when going into town. It was the wonderful casualness with which the magic in this world is introduced – so blithely, all of it taken for granted, all of it considered all but mundane – that made me sit up and pay proper attention.
That thread of…let’s call it normalised magic, runs throughout the book in a way that absolutely delighted me. Miren encounters mer (aka merfolk), ghosts, kelpies, and shapeshifters over the course of the story, and in her world witchcraft is something everyone can utilise (although there’s a huge difference between an untrained person meddling with the basics and a Proper Witch). On the one hand, the normalisation of it all takes some of the wonder away, because Miren and the narrative don’t treat kelpies and horses very differently; on the other hand, having magic woven that intrinsically into a world is wonderful in its own right. I enjoyed that aspect of the worldbuilding enormously, but sometimes it was a little maddening to get these intriguing hints and throw-away details about Miren’s society that weren’t fully explored – like the fact that there are brothels of men for women customers! Um, excuse me??? I want to know more about that please!
You kind of have to accept, very quickly, that just like in a fairytale, there aren’t any explanations here. Something that becomes very important to the plot is the fact that ‘all the waters in the world are joined’, but what the hell that means in practical terms? You’ll never know. The magic here doesn’t have a system that can be explained, and in fairness magic is supposed to be mysterious and inexplicable…but it’s been a while since I read about the kind of folklore-magic that doesn’t even pretend to have a system or pattern, even a vague one. It bothered me a little bit, but not too much. If you can let go of the questions and just let the story flow over you, it’s still a darkly enthralling tale.
At least, most of it is.
It’s difficult to talk about what makes All the Murmuring Bones weaker, because it’s all tied up with the final quarter or so of the book, the culmination of Miren’s journey and the answers to the book’s Big Questions. To be honest? The entire ending felt…rushed. Cramped, like too much plot was forced into too few pages. A great deal just works out Because Plot, coincidences and easy answers just dropped into Miren’s (and the reader’s) lap in a way that was really unsatisfying. I didn’t object to the twists and subversions of the ending at all, but I object pretty strongly to how we get there and in how they’re presented to the reader. It took a story that had been darkly gleaming-gorgeous for most of the book, and watered it down to something you can barely taste.
Which is a huge shame, because I loved pretty much everything else. Miren is a ruthlessly practical main character, with a sharp-clawed darker side that I adored, and Slatter’s writing is beautiful, scattering details of description like jewels throughout a setting that feels older and darker than the Grimm stories.
I’m not sorry I read it, and I would recommend it, with some caveats. I definitely want to go and hunt down all of Slatter’s books now. But this really great book was let down by a really lame ending, and it’s a little hard to overlook that.