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Nettle & Bone
by T. Kingfisher

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 30, 2023

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The latest Hugo-winning novel, Nettle & Bone, is a dark fantasy, essentially a revenge tale. Marra is the third and youngest princess of the Harbor Kingdom. You would think that harbor would make them a prosperous nation, but apparently not, and the king doesn't seem to be too concerned about that. What concerns him is the potential for either the Northern or the Southern Kingdoms to wage war to control the harbor. The Northern Kingdom is the more formidable of the two, so the plan is to marry off the oldest daughter, Damia, to Prince Vorling of the North. Only a few months later, word comes that Damia is dead, apparently victim of an accidental fall. Second daughter Kania is subsequently shipped off to the North, with Marra sent to a convent to prohibit her becoming involved with any other man and bearing a son that might prove a rival to Vorling. Not only is the Harbor King weak and powerless, Prince Vorling rules the North because his father, the nominal King, is in his dotage.

Other tragedies happen, and Marra learns disturbing news about the Northern King, and the proclivities of his son Vorling. Disturbing enough that Marra feels it is her duty to rescue Kania from him. In order to do so she must find a dust-wife, one who communes with the dead, then succeed at three very difficult tasks, the first two of which she accomplishes to the astonishment of the dust-wife. Marra is told she wasn't expected to complete the tasks, that they should have been impossible, and her plan for revenge would have ended there. Instead, the dust-wife finishes the third task for her, and they prepare to travel to the Northern Kingdom to kill the prince. Or make that King Vorling, since his father had died in the meantime. Several side-quests and detours later, one to the Goblin Market, and then a search for Marra's own godmother, they make it to the capital city in the North. I won't reveal all the how and why of what they do, nor of the several strange people (and not-people) they meet, some who help, some who hinder.

I was initially confused about the opening chapter, thinking it was set much later in the story than it was, that it might have been a result of Marra not accomplishing her task. Instead, it is somewhere in the middle, as she completed the second of the challenges presented by the dust-wife. The major theme is that most traditional fairy tales have been simplistic, and a perpetuation of the patriarchy. To be a princess, or to become queen, was to be the height of accomplishment, whereas the reality was they were merely figureheads, subserviant to the dominant male. Marra won't have any of that, and she definitely opposes the idea that if Kania dies she is the next in line to submit to Vorling. In spite of all the dire circumstances, there is also quite a bit of humor, and a bit of romance, no matter how much Marra tries to talk herself out of that.

In addition to winning the Hugo, Nettle & Bone had previously been a finalist for Nebula, Locus, and Dragon awards. Before the results were announced I had only read two of the other finalists, one of which I would have picked over this. I did enjoy it, and can recommend it, but if I had participated in the Hugos this year, there were five other novels I would have nominated, none of which were on the final ballot. That says as much about my tastes as it does the wide variety of well-written books to choose from these days. T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, mainly used for stories directed at older readers, but occasionally for younger ones too. She has won and been nominated for multiple awards under both names, and I am sure this will not be the last.


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T. Kingfisher

April 26, 2022

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