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Book Review: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Book Review: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

Quest novels are the beating heart of the fantasy genre. They typically centre on a bunch of disparate characters being thrown together under less than ideal circumstances and sent on a hopeless mission to either retrieve something, avenge someone or save something. T. Kingfisher’s Nettle and Bone is a classic quest novel in that sense, featuring a young protagonist trying to achieve all three of those things with the help of a grumpy gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a gallant former knight, a chicken possessed by a demon, and a dog made of wire and bones. Sound a bit mad? It is, but in the best of ways.

Shy, convent-raised Marra is the third born princess of a kingdom that had to marry off its first two daughters to secure an alliance that would ensure their survival. Having watched one sister die under suspicious circumstances and another continue to suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra has finally realised that nobody is coming to their rescue. No one, except Marra herself. Determined to save her remaining sister, Marra sets out to find the tools she will need to kill a prince protected by ancient magic. But first she must complete three seemingly impossible tasks. Only then does the real quest begin.

With her unlikely allies by her side, Marra ventures ever closer to freeing her sister from the clutches of her tormentor and ridding their kingdom of a tyrannous ruler. Getting near enough to kill a prince is a difficult task in itself. Breaking the magic that protects him is even more of a challenge. And surviving to tell the tale? Well, that’s a bridge that Marra and her friends will cross when they have to, and not a moment earlier. Which means, they won’t really think about it at all.

Nothing is fair, except that we try to make it so. That’s the point of humans, maybe, to fix things the gods haven’t managed.”

Nettle and Bone isn’t an instant attention grabber of a novel. In fact, read the first third of the book and you’re likely to be wondering what’s actually going on and where Kingfisher is taking readers. But this is a novel of the dark fairytale variety, which means you have to allow yourself to just go with all the delightful strangeness and peculiar characters – from a cantankerous demon hen, to a human/bird hybrid playing a pennywhistle to remove teeth, to a myriad of restless spirits and angry corpses. With this curiously compelling mix of grim and whimsy, the story weaves its magic like a spider spinning a web made of silvery thread to catch prey; it’s enchanting and macabre at the same time.

Once Marra has assembled her team, the pace of the story begins to pick up – and that’s when readers can really begin to invest in the fantasy adventure. It’s difficult not to be won over by this small band of loners and oddities, who become something of a found family for Marra by the end. She’s an unassuming but courageous character, driven by her love for her sisters, and she never gives up, even when it seems like her quest is doomed to fail. What’s so refreshing about Nettle and Bone though, is that nothing feels shoehorned into the story. All the characters feel necessary – particularly former knight Fenris, whose honour and diplomacy are invaluable – and every step of their journey essential to Marra achieving her end goal of killing the prince.

T. Kingfisher’s imagination is truly something to envy. With Nettle and Bone she has written a book that’s unnerving yet intriguing, ghoulish yet heart-warming, serious yet wryly funny. But for a novel built on such vivid world building, it’s actually the characters that make the story so engaging. You want them to save the kingdom, and you want them to survive – even if Marra and her friends are quite willing to die for their cause. That sense of selflessness is just one more reason to love them.

★★★★

Nettle and Bone was published by Titan Books on 26 April 2022

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