T. Kingfisher has quickly become one of my favourite authors with her recent horror releases The Twisted Ones, and The Hollow Places; two books that I found absolutely chilling and read very quickly. Something about her writing is incredibly compulsive, making you want to read on long after you should have put the book down, and her new fantasy novel Nettle and Bone is no exception to this rule.
Set in a small harbour kingdom, nestled between a Southern Kingdom and Northern Kingdom, our story follows the daughters of the royal family. We meet Marra, the youngest of the three daughters, who watches as her older sister goes off to marry the prince of the Northern Kingdom to ensure the safety of their people. However, when her sister meets an untimely end, the middle daughter is sent off to marry in her place. Knowing that she might have to marry the prince if another tragic accident happens, Marra is sent off to live in a small convent, keeping her out of harm’s way, in case she’s ever needed.
READ MORE: Dreadnaught (1981) – Blu-ray Review
Marra settles into her new life of not-quite a nun, finding purpose in the convent, finally free of the shackles of royal life. However, when she travels to the Northern Kingdom to attend the birth of niece she begins to suspect that not everything is going well for her sister. On a later visit, she learns that her sister is being abused by the cruel prince, and that the abuse and the constant pregnancies are taking their toll on her. Marra becomes determined to do something about this before the strain takes another sister from her. She makes a vow to kill the prince. Setting out with a dog made from bones and wires, she begins to recruit a strange assortment of people to help her in her quest, including a witch who can talk to the dead, a fairy godmother, a former night, and a demon possessed chicken.
Nettle and Bone is a wonderfully dark, yet strangely funny book, that manages to include some absolutely wild things like a chicken possessed by a demon, yet manages to make them feel not only real, but one of the least strange things that happens. Whilst I was at first surprised to see that this book was fantasy, given Kingfisher’s previous horror books, this is very much a dark fantasy story, and walks a very fine line between fantasy and horror much of the time. When the book first begins we’re introduced to Marra as she crafts her Bone Dog from scavenged pieces found in a bone pit, deep in a land where disease and darkness has spread, leaving many of the inhabitants roving, cursed cannibals. This sets the kind of tone for the book early on, and from here it never really feels like it gets much brighter.
The world of Nettle and Bone feels like a grim place to live, a world where the evils of the universe are just out of sight, both supernatural and human. The book has a lot of darkness, a lot of evil, and yet there’s always a sense of hope and happiness that manages to weave its way through, due in no small part to who Marra is. Marra is a wonderful protagonist for this story. She’s grown up as a princess, pampered and living in luxury, yet never once wants that. Once she’s been shipped off to live in a convent she finds herself enjoying life more, given more freedom than she’s ever had before. She enjoys getting to do the manual work she was always denied, and finds a passion as a healer and midwife. She understands that being born into positions of wealth and power don’t make you better than others, and that simple lives can be full of love and happiness, and that makes her a wonderfully unique princess.
The other characters in the book, especially those that come to join Marra on her journey, are utterly delightful. Her small band is definitely one of the more unusual groups of heroes, featuring a pair of magical old women who always bicker and jab at each other, a fairy godmother who doesn’t seem to have much power but holds a secret, a witch who can commune with and command the un-dead, a former knight running from his past as a killer but with a heart of gold, and the demon chicken. All of these characters seem like people who shouldn’t get on, who wouldn’t normally gel well together, yet they make for a truly delightful group of heroes. Even the dog made of bones becomes a firm favourite.
Nettle and Bone is a book that feels like the perfect blend of horror and fantasy, where the darkness of the universe feels baked into every element, creating a truly dark and disturbing universe. It has a wonderful group of protagonists who you’ll come away from the book wanting to see more of. And the plot, whilst simple in its end goal of ‘kill the prince’, is so full of twists and turns and amazing bumps along the way that it’s an absolute delight to read. Whilst this book was not what I’d come to expect from T. Kingfisher, it’s so obviously her work, her blend of darkness, creativity, and wonderful characters, that it easily joins her other books as one of my favourites.
Nettle and Bone is out now from Titan Books.