An Enthralling Modern Fairy Tale: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

T. Kingfisher wastes no time in bringing readers into the very meat of her newest novel, Nettle & Bone: we meet Marra as her fingers bleed and she works quickly to make herself a dog out of bone. Marra’s hands dig into the mud, finding the right pieces to work with, and there is a visceral joy when she brings her cadaverous canine back from death. It is equal parts grim and enchanting—bloody, hard work meeting that uplifting jolt of joy from hard work done.

With Nettle & Bone, Kingfisher provides a template for modern fairy tales that turns the familiar on its head and stands on its own as a unique tale of magic, murder, and yes, a demonic chicken.

Marra grew up watching the women in her family disappear. Her eldest sister, princess of the Harbor Kingdom, is married off to the prince of the Northern Kingdoms and a few years later has died. Her second sister is sent off soon after; letters mostly stop coming, her fate left in what is unsaid. And her mother, falling more and more into the shadow of the North, is unable to stop the horror she and Marra both know is probably happening, knowing exactly what the Northern Prince is like. Marra, mostly cloistered away in a local convent, is sick of it. And when she gets wind that her surviving sister is pregnant, Marra knows if the birth doesn’t go well or her sister dies, she’s next. The rage and injustice of watching her sisters suffer, or watching her mother bow to the whims of awful men, Marra decides to free all of them and plots to murder a prince. How she’ll go about it is…not clear yet. But after three impossible tasks wins her the allegiance of a dust-wife, a witch and keeper of the dead, Marra begins a quest to find a way to put an end to her sister’s abuse, and free them all from a tyrant prince and the horrible expectations of their world.

If you’ve read anything by T. Kingfisher (pen name for Ursula Vernon), you will know that no matter the setting, no matter the genre, you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. From the horrific otherworlds of The Twisted Ones or The Hollow Places, or her fantastical Saint of Steel series, Kingfisher finds the heart of the medium she’s exploring, and excavates thoroughly, holding dear those things she loves and celebrating them, as well as finding those dark veins that either need excising or reinvention, putting her own spin on something before putting it back inside. With Nettle & Bone, we find ourselves firmly in the realm of fairy tale meeting bedtime story, as a young princess recruits a band of misfits for her quest. From this starting point, as Marra finishes her impossible deeds to recruit the dust-wife, Kingfisher puts her own spins on the Grimm variety of fairy tale, keeping its teeth, but also opening its jaws towards those who are truly deserving and taking their archaic ideas to task within the parameters of the medium.

At every opportunity, Kingfisher turns our notion of what this story should be on its head. An elderly mentor whose heart of stone hides a deep and abiding concern for the world around her (plus the demonic chicken). A soldier in a faerie market with a death-wish after making a terrible choice hides nobility and tenderness beneath his stoic exterior. A kind and gentle fairy godmother harbors a dark secret, but one which may hold the key to saving Marra’s sister. And Marra herself, no wilting wallflower, whose dogged determination to step in and care for those the world would shrug and see die lies at the heart of this wonderful story. Again and again, Kingfisher brings light to those truths most fairy tales flick aside, either sanitized for mass consumption or ignored in favor of “protecting” young listeners. But not here.

Kingfisher doesn’t shrink or hide from how often fairy tales brutalize young women, how so many stories take their agency, their bodies, and their will for use and abuse by kingdoms and kings alike. How privilege and power shield the mighty from recompense and how literal magic will coil and twist itself to hide the monstrous from justice. But, Kingfisher argues throughout the narrative, no monster is completely untouchable and if you have enough people fighting against the narrative, fighting to change the narrative, the story can be bent to their will.

I was enthralled by Nettle & Bone from page one. This novel is meticulously balanced; between the breathless magic of a fairy tale well-told, with engaging, dynamic characters, a seemingly impossible quest, and the kind of worldbuilding that feels familiar with plenty of complexity hiding beneath the surface, Kingfisher also infuses rage and injustice, a scathing and scornful indictment of the powerful and abusive, and demonstrates the price paid when collective action is taken. A rose of a book with thorns running throughout, Kingfisher delivers a triumph of a standalone, and one I recommend no matter what kind of reader you are.

Nettle & Bone is published by Tor Books.
Read an excerpt here.

Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.

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