Nettle & Bone
[Reading Challenge 2024]

Nettle & Bone

by T. Kingfisher
Tor Books, 2022

This is another of those books I got from the Little Free Library down the street. I was surprised to find it there, because it’s so recent, so niche, and was so acclaimed in its niche. The book was labeled as “This isn’t the kind of fairy tale where the princess marries a prince. It’s the one where she kills him” and though that sounds sensationalistic, it was true.

It’s also a type of fantasy book I’m not a fan of: the fairy tale retelling/pastiche. You’d think I would be, as I write them, but in novel form I’ve found they don’t quite transcend their origins. These tales, in Western literature at least, were made to be short and pithy. Stretching them out belabors the point. The critical praise was enough, though, that I started reading, and I was glad I did.

The book hit all the notes of a fairy tale but was grounded in an often brutal realism, with a deadpan narrative style and some unlikely protagonists: a 30-year-old “short and round” princess Marra who’s been living in a nunnery for ten years; a witch who can commune with the dead; the princess’s fairy godmother; and a weathered, exiled diplomat-warrior they rescue from the Goblin Market. Like many fairy tales it’s a quest with a side journeys, but an unusual one. Marra’s sister Kania is married to the abusive king of another kingdom and Marra feels he will kill her after she’s borne his heir, so Marra sets out to kill this powerful king first.

As I said, I’m not a fan, but it won me over because of the intelligence of the writing, its observations about human nature, and its heart. I can see what the accolades were about. I was continuously surprised at how it never stooped to the obvious tropes and what it achieved in a minimum of words. I especially loved how the author took a trope – the fairy godmother – and gave an almost scientific in-depth examination of the skills and duties of such a profession, and even more admiringly, sprinkled them throughout the plot, with humor, instead of info dumping them all at once. It’s something other fantasy writers should take note of.

Other elements I enjoyed: A being called The Tooth Dancer in the Goblin Market who extracts teeth; a Frankenstein’s monster dog made out of bones, a friendly scene-stealer; and a search through an underground tomb complex as mysterious as the hobbits’ trek through Moiria or Tenar’s in The Tombs of Atuan. I could tell the tomb scenes ran away from the author in the realism department – I mean, the kingdom was small, and the tomb HUGE – but it was scary fun, and so was the hallucinogenic idea of it. It was never explained how the place got to be so big, but neither were many of the weirder elements, which again reminded me of the world’ realism, that in real life weird things often aren’t explained and must be taken as is. Justice doesn’t always work out I in this world, but there is coziness and humanity to be had along the way.

If anything annoyed me in the plot, it was the main character kept hold of her introversion and shyness for way too long into the story, when she should have begun shedding some of it at least. But, that was a quibble.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.