Shoutout to @staxsonstaxs for the enthusiastic hype for this one. I was getting ready for a trip and was looking for plane reads – this seemed like the perfect mix of fantasy and entertainment and carry-on-friendly sized book. And friends, it was all that and more.
“If you had learned not to trust your own senses, you might wait too long to run from an enemy.”
The third daughter of a small realm, Marra is the type of princess relegated to the background (or, in this case, a convent). She’s a little odd, not suited for royal life, and honestly it fits her well. But after realizing that while she’s been able to escape the demands of her “station,” her sisters have suffered at the hands of an abusive prince from a grander, neighboring country, Marra sets off on a mission to do something about it, to save her remaining sister, because no one else is going to. She fumbles through her quest with naivete and unmatched perseverance, picking up allies like a dog made of bones, a powerful dust-wife who can converse with the dead, a former knight recently freed from a curse, a godmother’s whose magical skills are a bit darker than she’d like them to be, and a demon-possessed chicken.
This novel opens by dropping the reader *right into* some serious horror-style stuff, like Marra’s fingers and hands bleeding as she tries to fashion a dog from wire and old bones in a land filled with cannibals. Yikes! But the writing is so perfectly dark and atmospheric that it overcame any squeamishness I had about what it was actually conveying. And as the story continues and we get more background about what brought Marra to that pit full of bones in the first place, with details from her childhood and growing up in the convent, I settled right into the story that was unfolding. I loved how this novel began with the “impossible tasks” that are usually the meat of a fantasy-quest tale, but then they were just the start, the very tip of the narrative, a sort of buy-in for Marra for the “actual work” that would save her sister (on this note, real life horror and content warning re: physical and emotional domestic abuse). At that point, the shades of horror remained strong, but were never too much (though I hate teeth/teeth-falling-out stuff, so that scene was *almost* too much). And there was a subtle humor in the writing, the kind that recognizes and calls out the normally accepted (and sorta nonsensical) minor details of life, but does so with an aim at poking fun (kinda satirical, but not quite all the way there) and with very astute insight. All in all, it felt sort of Gaiman-esque, in those respects.
This ended up being one of the most heartwarming, ragtag groups of mismatched people out on a rescue mission that I’ve ever read. They were all quirky and slightly “off” from what their stereotypical character would be in ways that were so endearing, edgy enough to be original but close enough to feel familiar. Speaking of, that combination really describes the entire reading experience for me. The simultaneous sense of recognition and foreign-ness in the novel is fascinating. Elements of so many different fairy tales are there and mashed up, so that they are like, right on the edge of my tongue, but I just couldn’t bring a particular story/plot to mind exactly. I loved that. It was like reading a combination of all the background, practical, parts of a fairy tale, but they were brought to center stage and given the attention they don’t normally get. And, my last story-telling comment: what an ending! Where we left each character was a great fit. Plus, the feeling of promise for the future, but also an undertone that things are not “all’s well that ends well” (as it were), as a subversion of the traditional “happily ever after” fairy tale ending, was just right for this book. I was just so full and satisfied after I finished.
There are a few other points I want to make, mostly related to the themes and social commentary within the context of this fantasy tale. First, as I mentioned, there were many insights that Kingfisher made with a subtle humor, through Marra’s internal dialogue, that concisely, and with stunning accuracy, conveyed indictment of that uneven-ness (unfairness) of life. Like right from the start, they wrote something like “it was cruel to punish starving people for that they had been forced to eat” and like, what a sentiment (meant literally here, but think of all the metaphorical extrapolations as well)!
I’ll be honest, Marra’s naïveté and incredulity at his sisters’ reality is…a POV that I wish all of us could have, that I wasn’t so jaded reading this that I thought she was silly-unaware. Real life can really suck. Speaking of Marra, her many roles (woman, sister, princess, nun) are contrasted with really well-crafted commentary on the various truths of moving through the world as a female. She was also a spectacularly written “reluctant heroine,” one of the most believable I’ve ever read. Her simultaneous loss of innocence and growth into her own strength of character in the face of brutal realities is inspiring and heartbreaking in equal measure, the exact right mix for someone with no resources taking every chance/sacrifice to right a terrible evil. Side note: I sort of read her as being Autistic, or somehow on the autism spectrum, did anyone else feel that? Finally, the hardness/heaviness in the messages about how “not all ______” is a flawed argument were spot on. Like, just because your experiences are good with that population, doesn’t mean that everyone’s are and turning a bling eye only hurts people further. Ugh, such an important concept.
Ok, let me just say, I have never found another book that made me want to write this description before, but this was such a wonderful and fascinating mix of dark-horror vibes and wholesome, heart-filling characters. Like, who thinks to combine those? But thank goodness Kingfisher did, because this was wonderful! I loved it, for all the adventure and character-strength-growth and magic and human insight. I highly recommend it!
I highlighted a lot of passages here – the writing was fantastic. Enjoy:
“…she was kneeling on the edge of a pit full of bones, in a land so bloated with horrors that her feet sank into the earth as if she were walking on the surface of a gigantic blister. A little wildness would not be out of place at all.” (What a description!)
“…the history of the world was written in women’s wombs and women’s blood and she would never be allowed to change it.”
“But everywhere’s dangerous if you’re foolish about it.”
“It’s all just a little overwhelming, isn’t it? […] You’ve done so much and here we are and now it feels like there’s so much left to do, doesn’t it?” (The best encapsulation of ambiguous anxiety that I have ever read.)
“Nothing is fair, except that we try to make it so. That’s the point of humans, maybe, to fix things the gods haven’t managed.”
“You cannot help people who do not want help. […] You can’t force someone to do what you think is best for them. […] Well, you can. But they don’t appreciate it and most of the time it turns out that you were wrong.”