The buzz around T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone, when it was published earlier this spring, was all about how it was a feminist fairy tale.
This is incorrect. It is a fairy tale, and it’s most decidedly feminist, but it’s also more than that, and it can’t be so easily pigeon-holed. Also, given the dark turn our politics has taken of late, it’s timely. It’s angry. Furious, in fact. Beneath the veneer of the fairy story, Nettle & Bone burns with indignation, simmers with outrage, all of it earned and righteous.
This is one of those reviews where I can’t talk seriously about the book without some spoilers, so be warned: there is spoilerish material ahead. Nothing I could write here will actually ruin your enjoyment in reading the book, but it might give you a few hints about where you should invest some extra attention.
Okay? If not, tough.
Contemporary fairy tales don’t exactly retell a single fairy tale story as much as they play with the elements, sometimes in a “commenting upon the original text” manner (in the way that Cathrynne Valente’s Comfort Me With Apples is a mashup of Frankenstein, Bluebeard, and the creation myth in the Book of Genesis), and sometimes in a more interpretive vein. T. Kingfisher’s Nettle & Bone is interpretive. Alix Harrow’s cover blurb declares, “Nettle & Bone is what happens when all the overlooked bit players of classic fantasy somehow wind up on the main quest.” Which is true. And in time, it may become an intrinsic part of the book’s charm. But not today. Oh no, not today.
Ursula Vernon (T. Kingfisher’s alter ego*) specializes in practical protagonists. In magic-drenched worlds, her heroes are the ones who sweep up, tidy the children, wash the dishes, and save the world. From the eponymous hero of the fabulous Digger graphic novel series to the adolescent with just a touch of small magic, Mona the Wizard of the Bakery in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Vernon’s heroes share the power to not be swept up in the glamour and allure of magic, magic that is, after all, often more perilous and problematic than it’s worth.
The plot of Nettle & Bone unfolds against the backdrop of a hard uncompromising world where injustice is the norm and the strong crushing the weak means that it’s a day that ends in a “y.” We meet Marra, the protagonist, in a charnel pit in “the blistered land,” where famine and disease made people eat their cattle and sheep, and then their dogs and cats, and then each other. Marra has completed her first impossible task, making a cloak of owlcloth and spun nettle, a process that’s pretty much destroyed her hands, and is hard at work on the next: building a dog of bone and wire.
She had the skull and the beautiful sweep of vertebrae, two legs and the long, elegant ribs. There would be at least a dozen dogs in this one, truly — but the skull was the important thing. (pp. 2-3)
Why? Because she really needs a friend. And it’s an impossible task, and Marra has three of them to complete before moving on to the fourth, most impossible task of all — killing her brother-in-law. Who also happens to be a king.
Killing the king is not your usual fairy-tale fodder, but this particular king is the villain in a very post-modern sense of the word: a domestic abuser, a man who particularly revels in power and cruelty in a world where women from princesses to farmer’s wives wear out their bodies with one pregnancy after another after another. Marra, consigned to a convent in her teens and living half her life among pragmatic nuns, learns enough midwifery to have opinions:
She saw babies born and mothers die. She saw mothers have an easy birth and then the bleeding simply never stopped, until they died white and bloodless against the pillow. She saw a birthing hook and how it was used to extract babies who had not survived long enough to emerge.
It was the fifth or sixth or tenth labor, as they walked back to the convent, that Marra could no longer keep silent. “It’s so stupid!” she said. (p. 38)
She learns how to brew abortifacients and care for women who “wear themselves out bearing,” but there’s a limit to what anyone can do:
“Its not yours to fix,” said the Sister Apothecary.” You think I wouldn’t stop women from catching pregnant until they die? But you don’t get that choice. You can’t go around kicking their husbands out of bed. I can mix up bushels of special tea, but I can’t force them to drink it.” (p. 57)
The forced-birth theme is particularly resonant right now, so naturally it’s where I want to put my focus; it crystalizes the larger theme of the many ways, both deliberately exploitive or pettily cruel, that powerful (almost universally) men bully and prey on the vulnerable. Whether it’s a farmer with a shovel or a drunk outside a tavern, or a king in his palace, Marra’s world is one divided between victim and aggressor, and most people sneak past the best they can. “The worm has nothing to fear from the hawk,” she tells herself (p. 170). But of course, the worm has everything to fear, everyone fears the hawk, and average people are as good as they can afford to be. In fact, the humbler the people Marra meets, the kinder and more generous they prove.
In Nettle & Bone, that fear forms the tapestry that Marra’s quest plays out against. Once she realizes that no one can or will save her sister, and no one will save her from the same fate — in fact, even her parents won’t hesitate to use her as a tool to safeguard themselves and their kingdom — she sets out to do it herself. One might think that in a world of goblin markets, fairy godmothers, and demonic chickens, Marra’s magic would have to be pretty spectacular. Well, her magic is that she ordinary, relentlessly ordinary. She can’t even claim intellectual brilliance, which is usually the purview of non-magical heroes, but she doesn’t cut corners, she knows how to work hard, and she’s relentlessly stubborn. When the dust wife sets her to three impossible tasks, she grinds them out, despite the personal cost, because she has no choice.
In that way, Marra is cut from the same cloth as other of Kingfisher’s heroes — normal people caught in extraordinary circumstances that force them to be more than they think they can be. And I don’t want to grimdark this entire review because the background is so stark and brutal. As stark and brutal as the times we’re facing right now.
The foreground, on the other hand, sparkles with wit, sharp observation, and good humor. The dust wife, a witch who speaks with the dead, accompanies her on her quest, because she’s Marra’s best weapon against the prince, she nonetheless has to make arrangements for her chickens, all but one:
The brown hen rode on top of the dust-wife’s staff, on the bone crosspiece. Her body moved as the staff moved, but her head stayed level in that peculiar way of chickens. Marra was first incredulous, then amused.
“You’re bringing the hen?”
“She’s got a demon in her,” said the dust-wife. “It’d be rude to leave her for the neighbors to deal with.” (pp. 75-76)
Add a knight freed from a goblin market and a fairy godmother who’s fabulously good-hearted but much better at cursing than blessing, add a bone dog, a labyrinthine crypt and an impossible quest, to save Marra’s sister and nephew from an alpha predator that wears a crown, and you have an “interpretive” fairy tale, one that takes elements of traditional fairy stories and twists them just enough to give them both a fresh gleam and an unexpected air. The effect of Nettle & Bone is narrative chiaroscuro, a bright foreground for the characters to be real and rounded people, and a very dark background.
It’s also worthwhile to note that, when the quest is done, it’s not a happy-ever-after conclusion. Marra’s world is better in many ways, her sister is queen and a curse is broken, but the daughters of a royal house are still chattel to make peace treaties on, women still wear out their bodies bearing babies, and there’s a reason to go on the lam. And Bonedog, whether he’s alive or not, remains a very very good boi.