One of the highest compliments that I personally can give a book is that it reminds me of the work of Peter S. Beagle, whose stories like The Last Unicorn, The Innkeeper’s Song, and A Fine and Private Place were absolutely formative for me as both a reader and fantasy fan. Beagle’s unique style, which is simultaneously bleak and beautiful, heartbreaking and heartfelt, and full of bittersweet ruminations about loss and regret, mimics the delicate and complicated strangeness of the best sorts of fairytales. As an author, Beagle both understands the reasons we keep coming back to these kinds of stories and shares our love of them, which makes the simple act of reading his works a soul-deep delight.
So, when I tell you that T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone is precisely that sort of story, please understand the scope of the praise I am conveying. From its ragtag group of heroes—which includes witches, demons, and resurrected bone animals—to its unflinchingly honest representation of the abuse and misogyny that makes much of its fantasy world go round, there’s a specifically wonderful alchemy at work here that threads the thin line between humor, horror, and heart in order to create something that feels both fresh and utterly necessary.
T. Kingfisher is the penname of children’s author Ursula Vernon, and it seems easy enough to see why she might want to keep the two lanes of her work from crossing over too much. Her fantasy book sare shot through with both sharp humor and uncomfortable threads of pitch-black realness, dealing with issues that range from emotional trauma and domestic violence to standard fairy tale pacts and seemingly impossible quests. Her characters are layered and three-dimensional, from princesses shot through with steel to gruff witches with secret emotional depths. And though her stories have satisfying endings, they are often more than a little bittersweet. Any sort of magic, remember, always comes with a price.
All these things are true of Nettle & Bone, a sharp, less-than-three-hundred-page novel that packs the emotional punch of an epic three times its length. A true delight from the first page to the last, it’s a deeply feminist, fiercely funny fairytale that delightful and unexpectedly subverts so many of the tropes we typically see in stories like it.
Our unlikely heroine is Marra, the youngest daughter of the tiny Harbor Kingdom and a princess who prefers needlework to the politics of ruling. As a third-born daughter, she is able to avoid her sisters’ fates of marrying for the good of the kingdom, and is sent to a convent instead, where she is allowed to sew, read, and learn a variety of applicable real life skills that a sheltered royal would never have had reason to know.
But the peace of her quiet life is shattered when she learns that wicked Prince Vorling of the Northern Kingdom is abusing his current wife—Marra’s sister Kania—and likely killed his first one, who was Marra’s other sister, Damia. Terrified of the hidden bruises she sees on Kania’s skin, and the constant pregnancies her sister is essentially using as a shield against Vorling’s violence, Marra decides to take matters into her own hands before this prince can kill another princess.
Set three impossible tasks by a powerful witch known as a dust-wife who can speak with the souls of the dead, Marra must weave a cloak of nettles, build a dog of bones, and capture moonlight in a jar in exchange for the tools to kill Vorling. And in most books, this would likely be the extent of the story, as Marra tries valiantly but finds herself incapable of violence, learns a valuable lesson about the value of life, or somehow manages to help the prince see the errors of his ways. But in Kingfisher’s tale, one princess’s seemingly impossible quest is only the beginning.
The first half of the book moves seamlessly through present day trials and snippets of flashback history, as Marra proves herself more than capable of doing the unimaginable to save her sister, bloodying her hands with nettles and venturing into a blistered land of zombie-esque cannibals to create the undead canine companion she unimaginatively names Bonedog. Her sheltered demeanor hides a will of steel and her plan to save her sister is as fueled by sheer grit and stubbornnesss as it is magic.
But the heart of Nettle & Bone is the unconventional relationships Marra forges as she trudges the path back to her sister’s castle, from the deliciously complicated dust-wife herself, who keeps a demonically possessed chicken as a familiar, to the kind-hearted if practically suicidally honorable knight Fenris, rescued after falling asleep in a fairy fort. There’s also the scatterbrained fairy godmother who just might have power enough to bend the world to her will if she embraced her dark side, but whose kind heart demands she only give out gifts of good health instead.
The propulsive plot takes our rag-tag group of misfits through Christina Rosetti-esque goblin markets and a crypt full of ghostly kings, encountering villagers bodily joined with cursed puppets, magically enchanted animals, and a man who can literally dance the teeth out of people’s heads. But underneath it all simmers a unique and specifically feminist fury—yes, Marra wants to save her sister, but she’s also fully and righteously angry at the world that has put both of them in the positions in which they find themselves.
She’s full of questions about and resentment toward the seeming inevitability of men, destined to rule and control the lives of all, whether they’re good people or bad ones. She’s furious at the way women are expected to marry for the good of others, and to churn out children for the sake of succession and safety, whether they want to or not. One of the novel’s more interesting twists is how much Marra seems to not mind not having to think about things like marriage and motherhood, and prefers knowing how to help birth children rather than having any herself. And, quite frankly, her arguments make a lot of sense—Kingfisher doesn’t judge Marra for her feelings or deem her unnatural in any way. Her feelings are all just a part of her story, like anything else. And it’s up to the reader to judge what that all means.
But the end result is one of the most truly unexpected delights of the spring.
Nettle & Bone
is available now from Tor Books.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.