T. Kingfisher’s most recent novel, Nettle & Bone, is a fairy tale, replete with the usual archetypes: a kind-hearted and naïve protagonist, magical companions, difficult siblings—even a villainous tyrant. The narrative follows the adventures of Marra, a thirty-year-old princess who must save her sister from an evil prince. But T. Kingfisher’s stories are rarely ever so straightforward. Her novels stand out from the particular trend in the speculative publishing industry to push for narratives that are more optimistic, agentive, and hopeful. Nettle & Bone, almost denying the existence of stark binaries—the hopeful narrative set against the dark or grim—begins with Marra in a cemetery, desecrating graves and performing necromancy in order to forge companionships and challenge monarchies.
Nettle & Bone, much like the author’s other work, is set in a low fantasy world that deals in folk magic(s)—a contemporary fairy tale. Fairy tales have more to do with structure and form than with a happy denouement. They’re tall and stately creatures; in other corners, they become intricately domestic—full of chores and intimacies. Fairy tale or folk magic is wild, indeterminate and unstable, threatening prefabricated concepts such as justice or modernity. They’re maddeningly engrossed with form, familiarly technical, and as Kate Bernheimer says in ‘Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale’, they are deceptively simple. Within this framework, Nettle & Bone tells a story about kingdoms (particularly the socio-political interstices between them), reproductive work, and responsibility.
For this fairy tale, T. Kingfisher creates a magic system that is both ubiquitous and powerful. There are dust wives (or witches) who deal in necromancy; fairy godmothers who are neglected and exploited; and wild, subterranean land where magic is bought and sold at a price that is enormous, but always fair. As evidenced in her other work (such as Minor Mage or A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking), the magic belongs to a minority culture, a substratum in the tug of war between states and individuals. It emerges, in Nettle & Bone, in lands where famines have driven people to cannibalism, or in maze-like tombs.
It is here, in this dark, magical landscape, that Marra creates a bonedog for herself—a lopsided, skeletal, faithful companion. The author’s métier is at play in creating a humorous tone to explore the magic and its effects. Humor is thus produced as a calculated move between surprise at and acceptance of this world, which only takes place due to a tension between the minority cultures and the so-called hegemonic normal. The demonic chicken in the story, for example, is something between a common house-pet and also a monster.
It is also the same tension that produces the beleaguering conflict at the heart of the story: a difficult choice set to individuals to take on the responsibility of the world. Marra and the dust wife, who accompanies Marra on her journey, are both grouchy older women who have determinedly set out to right wrongs, but not without complaint. This ability to grumble and complain, in this case about having to save a princess from having to bear another child for the tyrannical prince despite a miscarriage, that makes this novel shine for me. It cements a consistent theme that the heroic journey is usually taken under duress, that it is simply a necessity born out of the complacency of those with power. Institutions have failed Marra and her sisters; her royal parents and the benevolent church are in positions to intervene, but because they won’t, the task is hers alone.
I found it appropriate that the narrative also depicts, in unflattering but generous detail, the tyrant as expressing himself through threats and tantrums, the witch as a benevolent grouch, even the fairy godmother as being a kind old woman who sometimes bestows murderous curses. These details are not so much inversions or subversions of the archetypes, as much as they are interpretations. Fairy tales are vastly malleable, and it must be remembered that the violence and transgression inherent in fairy tales has too often been sanitized for our consumption. I interpret Nettle & Bone’s fairy tale as a narrative about magic that is extraneous, present but absolutely insignificant without the human intention and action to produce the effect. As such, it’s T. Kingfisher’s characters and their motivations that take the stage; without their decisions and motivations, nothing really can happen.
And while the characters are sometimes too kind and too naïve, and the climax is a little too easily accomplished, much in the manner of most adventure narratives—I was enamored by Nettle & Bone because it allowed its characters to be contradictory. I could easily ignore its tendency to repeat its punchlines or reduce the nature of malevolent evil as it made room for the necessity of action.
Through its particular normalization of magic, the novel becomes a story about the capabilities of the individual, who despite their initial disillusionment with the people and institutions in power, does not refuse the help and kindnesses of magic that belongs to the people, to the dying earth, and to oral narratives everywhere. If we are to consider the individual as powerful, let us not forget what we owe each other. If we are to learn something from fairy tales, let it be the human ability to take responsibility.
Nettle & Bone
by T. Kingfisher
Published April 26th, 2022
Shinjini is a freelance editor, writer and reviewer. Her work can be found in The Ancillary Review of Books, Bloodknife Magazine, The Swaddle, Decolonial Hacker and others. Find her @shinjini_dey