In the last of T. Kingfisher, Nettle & BoneMarra is a reserve princess, sent to live out her days in a convent in case her two sisters die before giving the all-powerful prince of the neighboring kingdom the heir he wants.
When her older sister dies falling down a flight of stairs, it looks like an accident. But then her younger sister issues a warning Marra can’t ignore: make sure you’re not next.
Unwilling to abandon her remaining sister, Marra decides to embark on an impossible quest – to kill the prince who would otherwise make them both his victims. The problem is that Marra is not a heroine. Princess or not, she’s just an ordinary woman with a little talent for embroidery and spinning and a tendency to be stubborn. If she’s to succeed, she’ll have to win the aid of a ragtag crew – and these aren’t the usual suspects one rounds up for a quest.
There’s the Dustwoman, a powerful spiritualist who commands the dead from the comfort of her hut and won’t leave behind her demon-possessed chicken. There is the disgraced fallen knight who is no longer young after spending an indefinite amount of time imprisoned by fairies. And last – but certainly not least – is Marra’s fairy godmother, a wholesome and cheerful little old woman who is determined to bestow blessings, even though she’s much better at curses.
Top it all off with a dog made of resurrected bones and you have a very unlikely group 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 whose blessing makes him impossible to defeat.
It’s an adult fantasy novel – all the characters are over 30 – but it reads like the fantasy novels I devoured as a teenager back when YA was a thing. It reminds me of the series of fairy tale tales edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow in the 1980s and 90s (which set the standard for this fantasy subgenre), only rather than sticking closely to a tale of specific fairies like model, Nettle & Bone treats its source material like a buffet – a bit of Blue Bearda generous portion of The six swansand oh, taste goblin market. The result looks like a very comfortable but still perilous D&D adventure, full of reunited family, second chances, and tons of nods to the folklore that inspired it.
The beauty of it all is that even paying homage to the tropes I know and love from growing up on a steady diet of Brothers Grimm, English ballads, and French literary fairy tales, Nettle & Bone also carefully subverts them, asking why the witch can’t join the quest and how things might be different if people were valued for who they were instead of who they were supposed to be. The world-building complements this subversion beautifully, creating a land of once upon a time that’s familiar and yet full of quirky detail. It’s also incredibly refreshing to read a story featuring not one but older women as the main characters who have as many adventures and wield as much (if not more) power than the other members of the group. And I didn’t even have to worry about the dog dying – he’s already dead!
As much as I loved Nettle & Bone, I had a little trouble getting into the opening chapter. We are dropped in the middle of the adventure, when Marra has already completed impossible tasks, and then brought back to find out how she got there. I understand the choice to start with action and adventure and I like a good non-linear narrative, but I didn’t find myself really committed to this story until we went back to the beginning and had a idea of who Marra was before her quest began. Fairy tales usually start with the protagonist setting off, and there’s a reason for that: we’re making the journey with them. But, that said, the book got rid of the time jumps very quickly, and once it did, nothing could stop me from finding out if Marra and her friends would have happily ever after.
Nettle & Bone brings together all the secondary (and let’s face it, more interesting) characters from the fantasy lore and gives them the chance to save the day on their own terms. I have no doubt that I will come back to it often when I feel like a fractured tale.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.