I read T. Kingfisher for the first time a couple years ago when a friend highly recommended A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, and since then I’ve added a fair few others, from the excellent children’s book Harriet the Invincible (as Ursula Vernon) to adult fairy tale retellings and even horror. But Nettle & Bone was her first time on the Hugo shortlist for Best Novel–and I’m very late in posting this review, but it turns out she won!–and I was intrigued to see the book that had people buzzing.
Nettle & Bone stars a royal family’s third daughter, hidden away in a convent while her sisters are married off to the prince of a more powerful neighboring land. But when it becomes clear that her sisters have been abused—with her second sister trapped with a monstrous husband and no way out but the grave—she takes it upon herself to undergo a quest to provide relief in the only way she knows how: killing the prince.
And it’s a fun story—though a bit lighter than one may expect after the gravity of the setup. But having read so much Kingfisher this year, I am beginning to run into a problem I occasionally hit when reading too many things by an author who hops between subgenres (like Kingfisher or Adrian Tchaikovsky): I start to notice too many common threads. In Kingfisher’s case, it’s a bit of commonality in the style of humor—even in horror novels!—plus a tendency to accumulate quirky compatriots and to touch on big themes but not take them too deep.
And none of those make for bad books; after all, there’s a reason I’ve read as much of her work as I have. But I do think it’s best-suited for the works aimed at younger audiences, where quirky companions are genre standard and there’s a limit to just how deep the exploration of darkness can go. I felt A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking got just dark enough for its 14 year-old protagonist, but the adult Nettle & Bone, with its adult lead and so much trauma in the backstory, just felt like it ended up being a hair too light.
It’s very much still a fun read—I enjoyed the quirky band of adventurers, and the secondary characters were almost universally delightful. And it was fun to see a book that so thoroughly nailed the fairy tale vibe without retelling any particular fairy tale. But I felt the conclusion came a little bit too neatly, and there was one plot point that was so incredibly obvious to the reader that it was frustrating to see the lead go so long without understanding.
Overall, Nettle & Bone is easy to recommend for established fans of T. Kingfisher who know what to expect and want the kind of story she so regularly delivers. It would also make a very solid introduction to her work, although my personal recommendation (in case it isn’t obvious) is still A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. But Nettle & Bone is easy to read, the cast is fun, and there are some really tremendous one-liners. That said, it’s probably not the right choice for readers looking for something different, or for those who want a deeper dive into the trauma that serves as the tale’s inciting incident. For me, it’s solidly good-but-not-great.
Recommended if you like: feminist fairy tales, quirky adventures, Kingfisher.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Mundane Jobs and is a Book Club pick.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.