Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher

T. Kingfisher once again brings down to earth magic to a fantasy story.

Cover by Natasha MacKenzie

Fairytales, especially brand new ones, not just rewrites and reinterpretations, are pretty hard to get right. There’s a hard-to-define quality to fairytales, the ones that really feel like fairytales, that seems somewhat at odds with how modern novels are written. If you go back to Grimm, for instance, the stories seem pretty light on characterisation and even lighter on explaining things beyond the first level. Why did the fairy godmother curse the child? Because she wasn’t invited to the party! It’s an answer, sure, but it’s hardly… substantive. There’s not tonnes of motivation going in there. Things tend to be simpler, magic tends to be assumed and unexplained, and a lot of the rules of the world as we know them are just suspended without notice and we just have to accept it. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but when you try to turn that into a novel, you’re going to run into issues. People have expectations of how a novel works, people expect things to make at least a little bit of sense beyond the superficial, and for the characters to feel at least a bit like real people, making real choices in a world that, even if it’s different from ours, behaves in a way that at least implies it has some sort of sense to it. It’s a difficult needle to thread – do you try to find logic for things that don’t necessarily have them, or do you just roll with it and hope your audience suspends disbelief along with you?

T. Kingfisher has absolutely nailed it – to mix a metaphor – with Nettle and Bone. It feels absolutely like a fairytale, and absolutely like a novel. And I loved it.

It tells the story of Marra, the third princess of a small kingdom with a useful harbour, trapped between two larger kingdoms. Less politically savvy than her older sisters, she’s been sent to live in a convent out of the way of court – and of the risk of marriage. But when her second sister turns out to be in danger in her marriage to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, Marra has to do something about it… and that something ends up involving a witch, an ex-knight rescued from the night market, and a fairy godmother with only intermittently useful powers.

Marra’s journey to save her sister is a winding one, but for all its relatively slow start and meandering direction, it never feels like it lacks pace. I wanted to keep on reading and keep on reading every time I picked it up, and the big reason for that was the characters – Marra is an incredibly compelling protagonist, not least because she’s not the sort of character we’re used to seeing in the starring role.

T. Kingfisher has a good track record, in my experience, of putting people in her central character roles who aren’t usual protagonists. In the Saint of Steel books, her paladins and their love interests tend to be older, and have different attitudes and experiences to what you might expect from a more traditional fantasy. The mentions of sore backs, mysterious aches and general age-related maladies are often played for jokes – very much laughing with, rather than at, I hasten to add – but they are also just delightfully present, and cementing us in the reality of, for example, someone who has been fighting in armour for a lot of his life and is now in his late thirties. Nettle and Bone takes a different direction on this, though much in the same spirit. Marra is a more typical protagonist age, the youngest of three girls of marriageable age in fantasy medieval Europe, but aside from that, she’s remarkably… average. And this is absolutely a strength. She laments often in the book that she’s a bit slow to catch on to people’s double meanings, or things others pick up on quickly, that she’s not clever like her mother and sisters. She’s not an unattractive person, but nor is she a great beauty (incidentally, I dislike intensely when someone is described as being plain in something like this and then by the end of the book umpteen people have declared them to be actually drop dead gorgeous). She’s good at weaving and sewing – though not to a magical extent – and she’s willing to help out when people need her help. She doesn’t like being coddled particularly, though not to the extent of being headstrong and untameable. She’s just… a person. A nice person. A person it’s easy to like.

What drives her through the plot isn’t some wonderful, intrinsic quality of goodness or intelligence, but instead that she comes to see that something is wrong with her sister’s situation, something that other people knew, or suspected, but that she hadn’t noticed, and realises that she cannot stand to let it continue. She doesn’t necessarily like her sister, but she will not see her treated badly by someone for whom there can be no consequences, and so she sets out to right this wrong.

And she solves her problems by being determined, by being willing to try, by having no other options, and by finding friends and allies where she can, and being willing to trust them, at least a little bit.

And it’s really refreshing to have a character like her, who struggles and fails and has to ask for help, who doesn’t magically solve the problems by being brilliant. You feel like you could meet her in real life, have a conversation with her, and she’d be a genuinely real person who could exist in the world.

And outside of Marra, though they get much less focus, the secondary characters are just as compelling – the gravewitch is delightfully practical about magic, demons and other people, the broody ex-knight manages not to be irritatingly broody (and has a source of his sadness that is entirely compelling, and not one with an obvious solution the reader can be exasperated he didn’t choose to take), the fairy godmother is the slightly scatterbrained friend everyone has met. They all have their flaws, and their flaws make them. They react to each other in a delightfully human way. You can imagine them having casual chats about things that don’t matter, even as they go about some pretty large-scale, sometimes dark adventure.

That darkness is also one of the book’s great strengths – that the problem at the core of the story isn’t a dragon (that might be a metaphor for something) but instead a man who has been allowed too much power gives all of the conflict that much more strength. The reason he has that power is both temporal and magical, but the effect of it is entirely human. He’s a bad man, a man who will not stop himself, who will continue to hurt people, and so he must be stopped. It’s also a sparing darkness, not delighting in giving us any more grim detail than we need to see to understand the gravity of the situation. I find that some fantasy gets too bogged down in emphasising the grimness, not to make a point, but simply to revel in being gritty and dark, and this isn’t this. Kingfisher uses it sparingly, and makes it thus all the more prominent – we don’t need to keep on seeing it on the page for the story to revolve around it.

In a slightly counterintuitive contrast to this, humour is one of the story’s other great strengths. It’s not laugh out loud funny, there aren’t jokes, but it has a thread of wry wit undercutting a lot of it, especially in the dialogue, that reminds me of Iain M. Banks. I rarely laughed reading a Culture novel, but I was often amused.

And this counterbalance – the darkness and the humour, the fantastical and the human – and the way that all of it is managed so seamlessly, is what makes Nettle and Bone, and T. Kingfisher’s work more generally, great. This is a difficult comparison to make, but it’s one I genuinely believe – her writing has the same quality of humanity, of encompassing the earthy and the magical, the funny and the awful, that Terry Pratchett managed so well, and I come away from reading them with the same sense of comfort that I do from a Discworld novel. They are both people who write people, and write them in all their faults and failings, and whatever story they tell, however fantastical, both of them do always come back to people being just… people. And that’s what Nettle and Bone really is. That it weds this so naturally to an intrinsically fairytale story is a great mark in its favour, but it’s the people underneath it that make it worth its while.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10 

Bonuses: + 1 for once again making a Dragon Age reference in a T. Kingfisher book that suggests a tonne of opinions going on in the background

Penalties: I can't think of any

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference:  T. Kingfisher, Nettle and Bone [Titan, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea