TW: stillbirth and death of infants, domestic violence including rape (all of these are alluded to but not shown or explicitly described)
Take the horror elements from T. Kingfisher’s novel The Hollow Places and combine them with the character dynamics and gentle, slow-burn romance of the Paladin series and you get Nettle and Bone, a fairy tale in which a princess enlists the help of a witch, a warrior, and an evil godmother in her efforts to kill a prince. I ate this book up to the detriment of several other things that I was supposed to be doing. I regret nothing.
Our story opens with an exhausted princess who is also almost but not quite a nun (it makes sense in context) struggling to build a dog out of bones, so right away we know we are not in for a light hearted romp. Even in a desperate situation such as this, Marra (the above mentioned princess/almost-nun) is capable of dry humor. Marra is attempting to complete the three impossible tasks that will convince a dust-witch to help her kill a prince.
If the above paragraph seems like a lot, fear not, for all shall be explained, although the plot will become increasingly complex as more characters join Marra on her quest. Marra’s older sister is married to an abusive prince, and Marra is desperate to help her, through murder if need be. As Marra continues on her quest she is joined by the dust-witch, an evil godmother, a demon chicken, and a warrior named Fenris. There is horror, action, humor, tragedy, a slow-burn romance, and a lot of fairy-tale tropes both invoked and subverted along the way, grounded in a lot of realism.
I love the world-building which portrays places and people that feel completely real while also appearing to be utterly fantastical. I like how the world-building smoothly incorporates politics, messy family relationships, and difficult moral choices in a way that feels organic and inevitable and deeply tied to place. Everything and everybody feels just right, fitting or failing to fit into a structure of magic, survival, and politics that reads as ancient and established.
The characters are all wonderful and many are characters we don’t often see take central roles in fantasy quests. Marra is thirty years old, has renounced being a princess to the best of her ability, and is accompanied by the aforementioned Bone Dog as well as two old women (and the demon chicken, let’s not forget that). Fenris is the closest thing to a typical fairy tale hero that we have and he is happy to play a supportive role. I adored these characters on an individual basis but the true joy lay in their funny, poignant interactions with one another. I also adored the emphasis placed on crafts and talents that are generally thought of as “women’s work.” The plot relies heavily on Marra’s ability to spin thread, weave, and sew.
The only thing that saddened me is that I wanted more. I wanted to know more from the point of view of Marra’s sister, Kania, who shines at the end of the book but has very little agency until that point. All the plot threads are neatly resolved at the end, but I wanted to keep reading and reading and reading.
Regarding the dog, I know many of our readers want to know one thing and one thing only: does the dog die, and also how is the chicken? Well, technically the dog is dead to start with but if you MUST KNOW:
There is an upsetting scene in which his skeleton is destroyed causing him to “die” again.
He gets better, so don’t worry about it. The chicken and a chick that joins the party later are both fine also.
Others among you only want to know whether Marra and Fenris hook up. This is a slow burn romance which is G-Rated in the sex department. However, if you enjoy slow burn romance, you can’t do much better than these people who instantly depend on one another, providing each other with steadfast loyalty and trust. Fenris is a quiet man who is not intimidated by loud women. He and Marra literally lean on one another moments after they meet, and this constant, calm, steady support gives the group a solid backbone. There are no fireworks in this love story; rather it’s like a hearthfire, with Marra and Fenris being consistently mutually respectful and supportive and also considerably attracted to each other.
This was a lovely story and, as I mentioned above, I never wanted it to end. I hope for many, many sequels, not because of any dangling plot threads but because I just want to hang out with these people for longer. It is a fairytale that is, mostly, about grown-ups, many of whom have Seen Some Shit. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always emotionally gripping, new, and wonderful.