Some Heroes Are Made, Not Born: Review of T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone
REVIEW AUTHOR NAME
Nettle & Bone. T. Kingfisher. Tor Books, April 2022.
I’m always fond of the reluctant hero image: the person who, Frodo Baggins-style, would much rather be left alone to live a quiet life but takes on the mantle of doing right because it needs to be done. Likewise, I also enjoy superheroic stories of people seeking justice in the world, whose highest goal is the protection of innocents. Both these narrative strands are concepts that I think we need desperately now, in this age where the rich, powerful, and abusive seem more untouchable than ever, where too many people still see other people as things and not fellow human beings, and where justice seems all too often out of reach.
T. Kingfisher weaves these strands into a brilliantly-written new fantasy with her 2022 novel Nettle & Bone. Kingfisher takes the standard quest narrative, where a varied band of adventurers embarks across a spell-haunted, monster-infested landscape in search of some treasure, or magical object, or endangered princess, and resets it in the context of restorative justice. What’s more, Kingfisher’s crew is particularly motley, with each member of the band weighed down by their own emotional vulnerabilities and pervasive feelings of inadequacy in the face of adversity (well, except perhaps for Bonedog, who is…exactly what his name promises). Kingfisher’s characters are wholly real in their flawed humanity, and no one more so than her protagonist, Marra.
Marra is a daughter of royalty, a princess in a small and fairly insignificant kingdom who lives a life equally removed from her father’s humble subjects and from the dizzyingly powerful rulers of the bordering Northern Kingdom. Over time, Marra’s older sisters are given in marriage to the Northern Kingdom’s future king, Prince Vorling. Vorling is no romantic Prince Charming, however, but an abusive, controlling spouse paranoid about his wife’s chastity and laser-focused on obtaining a male heir at the expense of the health (and life) of the mother. If that kind of figure sounds sadly familiar, it should. In any world but the one we live in, Vorling might seem a fantastical Game of Thrones-level monster, but, despite being a prince in a fantasy novel, he is unfortunately all too believable.
Marra resolves to kill Vorling and rescue her sister; Kingfisher is far from the first author to subvert the traditional fairy tale princess-prince relationship, of course, but making Marra’s end goal the murder of a domestic abuser adds an extra layer of emotional intensity and relevance. Although much of Marra’s story is broadly similar to other fantasy quest narratives, Kingfisher imbues common tropes with emotional richness and depth and complexity of character and scene.
Death and pain are at the heart of the narrative. The pain of her sister’s labor and imminent death hang over Marra throughout the book, and the novel itself opens with Marra in the middle of a morbid task, set by a witch with necromantic power (a “dust-wife”, as they are called in the book). In contrast to the dramatic and death-defying tasks that traditional fairytale heroes take on, Marra finds herself in a charnel pit within a blasted and cursed landscape, obliged to assemble a dog from the vast piles of bones around her. As the book’s opening sentence notes, “The trees were full of crows and the woods were full of madmen. The pit was full of bones and her hands were full of wires.” Kingfisher immediately launches the reader into a world of darkness and pain, but at the same time makes narrative room for life and the possibility of happiness. (From the remains of the dead, Marra assembles Bonedog, who proves a faithful, loyal, and loving skeletal companion.)
The book is notable for its focus on characters who, in a traditional fantasy narrative, would have been pushed to the side in favor of more royal, more noble, more powerful people. Marra is the third daughter of the ruling house of a tiny kingdom, the spare princess; the mysterious and nameless dust-wife (with her traveling companion, a demonic chicken) is an out-of-the-way wise woman who lives at the edge of nowhere and has no flashy, fancy magic; Agnes is an unusual and deeply insecure fairy godmother who decides to join the quest rather than make periodic and dramatic appearances to push the plot along; and Fenris is an honorable knight (familiar to fantasy readers), but a reluctant traveling companion deeply immersed in his own sense of dark guilt. It is the side characters who come to the forefront in Nettle & Bone, the smaller folk who rise to the necessary challenge. And Kingfisher sets them all off within a number of beautiful set-pieces, including that aforementioned assembly of Bonedog in the first chapter; a visit by Marra and the dust-wife to a goblin market, a place rife with mystery and uneasiness; and a journey by Marra and her companions through an eerie, haunted necropolis (watch out for the thief-wheel, one of Kingfisher’s most horrifying images).
My love for this book may be due in part to my lizard brain, which seeks satisfying and suitable (that is to say, homicidal) punishments for powerful and arrogant abusers rather than tainted and biased legal proceedings, but a large part of my admiration certainly comes from my appreciation of Kingfisher’s wit, her ability to populate a scene with complex characters and intriguing moods, and her explorations of the various emotions – anger, fear, determination, reluctance, resignation, excitement – that drive us as people. Nettle & Bone is a wonderful piece of intensely human fantasy, where the people never take second stage to the magic.
Jeremy Brett (he, him, his) is an archivist and librarian at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, Texas A&M University, where he serves as Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly listing. The author and editors were acquainted through previous ARB reviews. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.
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