'Nettle & Bone' creates a once-upon-a-time that is familiar, yet original
In T. Kingfisher's latest, Nettle & Bone, Marra is a princess in reserve, sent off to live out her days at a convent in case both her sisters die before giving the all-powerful prince of the neighboring kingdom the heir he requires.
When her eldest sister perishes falling down a flight of stairs, it seems like an accident. But then her middle sister issues a warning Marra can't ignore: Make sure you aren't next.
Unwilling to abandon her remaining sister, Marra decides to set out on an impossible quest — to kill the prince who will otherwise make them both his victims. The problem is that Marra isn't a hero. Princess or not, she's just an ordinary woman with a little talent at embroidering and spinning and a tendency to be stubborn. If she's going to succeed, she'll need to earn the help of a motley crew — and they're not the usual suspects one rounds up for a quest.
There's the dust-wife, a powerful spiritualist who commands the dead from the comfort of her hut and won't leave behind her demon-possessed pet chicken. There's the fallen knight, disgraced and no longer youthful after passing an indeterminate amount of time imprisoned by fairies. And last — but certainly not least — is Marra's fairy godmother, a wholesome and cheerful little old lady who is determined to pass out blessings, even though she's much better at curses.
Top it off with a dog made of resurrected bones and you have a very unlikely party of adventurers. Together they must invade the fortress of the most powerful prince in the land, navigate the horde of vengeful dead in his crypts, and stand up to his ancient and all-powerful fairy godmother who's blessing makes him impossible to defeat.
This is an adult fantasy novel — all the characters are over 30 — but it reads like the fantasy novels I devoured when I was a teen, in the days of yore before YA was a thing. It reminds me of the series of fairytale retellings edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow in the 1980s and 90s (which set the standard for this fantasy sub-genre), only rather than cleaving closely to one specific fairytale as a template, Nettle & Bone treats its source material like a buffet — a little dash of Bluebeard, a generous helping of The Six Swans, and oh, have a taste of Goblin Market. The result feels like a very cozy but still perilous D&D adventure, full of found-family, second chances, and tons of winks to the folklore that inspired it.
The beauty of it all is that even while paying homage to the tropes I know and love from growing up on a steady diet of Brothers Grimm, English balladry, and French literary fairytales, Nettle & Bone carefully subverts them as well, asking why the witch can't come along on the quest and how things might be different if people were valued for what they were instead of what they were assumed to be. The world-building compliments this subversion beautifully, creating a land of once-upon-a-time that is familiar and yet full of original details. It's also incredibly refreshing to read a story featuring not one but to older women as principal characters who get to have as much adventure and wield as much (if not more) power as the other members of the party. And I didn't even have to worry about the dog dying – he's already dead!
As much as I loved Nettle & Bone, I did have a little trouble getting immersed in the opening chapter. We're dropped in mid-adventure, when Marra has already completed impossible tasks, and are subsequently taken back to learn how she got there. I understand the choice to begin with action and adventure and I'm fond of a good non-linear narrative, but I didn't find myself truly engaged in this story until we went back to the beginning and got a sense of who Marra was before her quest began. Fairytales generally begin with the protagonist setting forth, and there's a reason for that: We make the journey with them. But, that said, the book very quickly dispensed with time jumps, and once it did, nothing could tear me away from finding out if Marra and her friends would get a happily-ever-after.
Nettle & Bone rounds up all the secondary (and let's face it, more interesting) characters of fantasy lore and gives them the chance to save the day on their own terms. I have no doubt I will return to it often when I'm in the mood for a fractured fariytale.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.