Nettle & Bone
By: T. Kingfisher Audiobook: 9 hours 3 minutes
Published: April 26, 2022 Narrated by: Amara Jasper
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Fairy Tales
…Three tasks the dust-wife had given her. Sew a cloak of owlcloth and nettles, build a dog of cursed bones, and catch moonlight in a jar of clay…
Three tasks, and then the dust-wife would give her the tools to kill a prince, (Chapter 1).
For eons, fairy tales have existed as oral narratives. I’m not saying they’ve been around as long as myths, legends, and epic tales because I don’t know whether or not it’s true. Anyhow, fairy tales are based on the storyteller, the culture, and the conflict. The most known example is “Cinderella.” There are numerous retellings and even more cultural variants of the same tale: a young woman is forbidden to attend a royal ball by her stepmother and a magical guardian provides a gown (in most of the stories) so she can attend it. Nowadays, speculative fiction readers have been receiving fairy tale and mythological retellings. There is nothing wrong with reading these stories (I’m a fan of those myself); yet, many readers do not mind getting a “new” fairy tale to read, particularly one that has its own story where the audience won’t be able to guess what happens next. T. Kingfisher presents us with Nettle & Bone, a new fairy tale with a compelling narrative that is not afraid of mocking their tropes in a not so humorous way.
The protagonist is Marra, the youngest princess of the Harbor Kingdom. She knows she is not the prettiest or the smartest princess, but she loves her family, especially her oldest sister—Damia—very much. When Princess Damia is betrothed to Prince Vorling of the Northern Kingdom—for the purpose of forming an alliance—Marra is upset. Everyone, including her mother and her father—the Queen and the King—and her next older sister—Princess Kania—tells Marra that the marriage is for the “good of their kingdom” and Princess Damia leaves home. Unfortunately, 5 months after the wedding, Princess Damia returns home with a funeral procession. Apparently, Princess Damia was expecting (a baby) and had fallen in an accident. As both kingdoms mourn, the Prince makes it known that he is willing to marry the next eldest Princess of the Harbor Kingdom—Kania—in order to continue upholding the treaty. After Princess Kania leaves for her wedding, Princess Marra is sent to live in a convent so that her “status” and her “reputation” as a princess—more like a “power piece”—is “protected.” As the years pass, Marra lives with the nuns and other novices and begins to live as they do regardless of her royal status. Marra learns how to sew, how to cook, and how to deliver a baby; she no longer recognizes herself as royalty and Marra becomes content with her life. Then one day, Marra is sent to the Northern Kingdom to visit her sister who is about to have her first child. When they are alone, Kania warns Marra about her husband and tells her to do whatever she can in order to “ruin” herself for the Prince. This is when Marra’s original suspicion of Damia’s death reignites. A few years later during another visit, Marra’s worse fears are confirmed when she sees actual proof of how Prince Vorling treats his wives. However, the alliance is necessary and there are rumors about magic being involved within the Royal Family of the Northern Kingdom. Marra knows how essential the alliance is for her kingdom, so she uses her status as a “nun” to leave the convent and search for a way to save her sister without causing a war. Marra is a hidden princess, which means she has more skills and more freedom compared to other royals. At the same time, Marra remembers enough about her life at court to know she must tread carefully on her quest to kill Prince Vorling without causing a war. Marra will meet her companions during her quest, but will all of them be enough to break any of the curses tied to the Northern Kingdom so a prince can be killed without the Harbor Kingdom being accused of breaking the treaty?
There is one main plot in this story, and it involves Marra’s quest to kill her brother-in-law, Prince Vorling. The Prince of the Northern Kingdom needs a wife, and the Harbor Kingdom has 3 Princesses, and they need an alliance for protection against a potential invasion or war. However, Prince Vorling is a cruel man and after he causes the death of his first wife, he marries the next eldest princess knowing her kingdom is powerless to deny the marriage or to stop his abusive treatment of her. The Prince sees himself as unstoppable without any weaknesses. Unfortunately for him, Princess Marra is on a quest to learn what his weakness is, and Marra comprehends the truth better than Prince Vorling. Princess Marra uses her time at the convent in her favor as she travels to find anyone powerful enough to kill a prince. So, she does the first logical thing: she searches for a witch. And, not just any witch, a dust-wife—or, a witch and a gravedigger whose magic allows them to communicate with the dead and to learn all of the secrets beneath the earth. Once Marra finds a dust-wife powerful enough to help her, she is given 3 “impossible” tasks to complete in exchange for the witch’s help. At the start of the story, Marra is working on the 2nd task. Marra has managed to complete at least 1 of the 3 “impossible” tasks, which brings her closer to reaching her ultimate goal. But, it can’t be as “easy” as completing 3 “impossible” tasks, right? There are 2 subplots in this narrative, and they are necessary for the plot development. The first subplot delves into what the protagonist, the other characters, and the audience think they know about all of the stories and the tales they’ve read, and they’ve heard, and twists their expectations on why such things only happen in them. Marra knows she can’t just have the prince killed without repercussions, but she believes completing 3 “impossible” tasks will give her what she wants. Even in the stories where that was all that would be needed to be done, there was either a catch or a follow-up to them. It soon becomes obvious that completing the 3 “impossible” tasks is just the first part of what Marra will have to do in order to kill a prince. The second subplot is the political roles royalty must follow and how they are the conflict in this narrative. The Harbor Kingdom is a wealthy, yet tiny, kingdom who is in danger of being invaded by any larger kingdom, so a pact is made through marriage. Except, the prince is cruel which causes the death of his first wife shortly after their wedding under “mysterious” circumstances. Then, the prince marries the second princess. The second wife lives long enough to bore him a child, but the accusations start to spread. Then, there is physical proof of mistreatment. It’s too bad the princesses came from smaller and weaker kingdoms and that the prince knows of the third princess and her whereabouts. Even the powerful are subjective to everyday abuse. Could anyone stop the abuse before the second wife dies? Who is powerful enough to kill a powerful prince from a powerful kingdom?
The narrative in this story is presented in 3rd person limited point-of-view from Princess Marra’s perspective. This means the audience knows what is happening based on what is happening to Marra and only to her. When Marra learns about Prince Vorling’s character it is because she is told about it directly. When Marra remembers her sister, Damia, it is through her memories and her stream-of-consciousness. Whenever Marra realizes there is yet another step towards achieving her goal, the audience gets her thoughts and her feelings about it. At the beginning of the story, the sequence of the narrative goes back-and-forth between the past and the present. This is done so the audience knows how and why Marra is on her quest. All of these components make Marra a reliable narrator whose narrative can be followed easily.
The style T. Kingfisher uses for Nettle & Bone is a blend of fairy tales and dark fantasy. The overall plot contains the tropes of a “traditional” fairy tale: completing 3 tasks, gaining help from a fairy godmother, rescuing a princess, etc. Yet, because the narrative is presented as everything is occurring to the protagonist and the characters—over the years—it comes across similar to an epic tale—or, in this case—a dark fantasy story. For example, Marra does complete the 3 “impossible” tasks, but that was for the dust-wife. On the surface, completing 3 “impossible” tasks should be enough for Marra to gain what she needs, but she is NOT living in a fairy tale, so more needs to be done so that Marra can obtain what she needs to kill a prince. And, this is where the fairy tale ends and the rest of the (dark fantasy) story beings for the characters. It was never going to be that easy to accomplish the impossible, which is the reality within the fiction. The mood in this novel is grim (but, not grimdark). Marra’s family is royalty, but they are in a precarious position—literally—and they must endure their comfort so that their lives and their kingdom survive. Unfortunately, this includes marrying your daughter off to an abusive psychopath for an alliance. On top of this, Marra’s quest itself is grim, but she is willing to do whatever it takes to save her sister. The tone in this novel is endure. It is not only Marra who endures her living situation and her circumstances (i.e. living in isolation in a convent, being used for political advantages, etc.,), but her sister has to endure her marriage to her cruel husband for the sake of her kingdom’s survival; and, there are so many other characters who have to endure all of their suffering as well, but not all of them are as determined as Marra is to seek a way to end it.
The appeal for Nettle & Bone have been extremely positive. This book had a lot of hype due to early readers and critics (and other authors) who read this book before its release. In addition, the high ratings have brought more positive attention to it due to the buzzworthy news. And, this book lives up to all of the hype surrounding it. Fans of dark fantasy and fairy tales will enjoy this book the most and it belongs within both literary canons as well. Please understand this book is NOT a fairy tale retelling, it can be argued that Nettle & Bone is its own “separate” fairy tale/dark fantasy. Hence, I recommend this book to fans of Kelly Barnhill, Seanan McGuire, Marjorie Liu, C.S.E. Cooney, A.G. Slatter, and Pan’s Labyrinth (both the film and the book). I listened to the audiobook and Amara Jasper was the perfect narrator/voice actor for this book. If you are interested in the audiobook edition of this book, then you couldn’t have asked for a better narration of it. I’m going to overreach myself and say this book will be nominated in next year’s speculative fiction literary awards.
Nettle & Bone is one of the Best Books of the Year. Once you read it, you’ll believe the same thing. T. Kingfisher combines fairy tale tropes with a dark fantasy setting and adds a conflict with grim overtones, which resulted in one of the Most Buzzworthy Books of this Year! This is one of my favorite books of this year and the hype surrounding this book is real!
My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!