After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.
Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.
On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.
CW: mentions of cannibalism, pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, death of a child, mention of death by torture, domestic abuse
This is only my second book by the author but once I finished reading Paladin’s Grace, I decided not only that I needed to finish that series but also anything the author writes. This one just happened to be her latest and though the premise sounded a bit too creepy for my taste, I just had to give it a try. And wow what a ride this turned out to be.
This fantasy is definitely unlike anything I’ve ever read and I was already expecting something unique from the author, but this was way above my expectations. The author just throws us in the middle of a very creepy situation where we don’t know what’s happening and then goes back and forth to set the buildup for that creepy beginning. But the best part of the book is that the author manages to drastically change the tone of the narrative from creepy to sad to slice of life to happy to adventurous to high stakes, and it’s all done so brilliantly that we never find it difficult to navigate. The writing also has this way of being subtle but packing a punch and all the emotions come out at very unexpected times, so it’s a very unpredictable reading experience but that’s what makes this so much fun. The pacing is also perfect, taking its time at the smaller moments and moving faster at crucial sequences, making for a very immersive read and the mood as well as setting changes also work perfectly. Another most surprising part are the settings themselves – there is a blighted land, there are cannibals, saints, a goblin market, fair folk, magical godmothers, creepy catacombs – we never get the why of any of them; they all exist and are part of this world and we just get to go along with the author’s quirky imagination.
But I also think it’s the themes the author incorporates here that makes this such an impactful story. There’s a lot of indirect and direct commentary on the status of women in the society, how they are constrained by the roles they have been assigned, and how difficult it is to get out of them. I especially found the implications around how pregnancy and motherhood has a way of constraining women to be very timely, especially because bodily autonomy is on the line in our real world these days. The domestic abuse depicted isn’t shown in any graphic detail but the implication of it is very stark in the silences, the helplessness a wife can feel when her husband is an abusive man with lots of power is laid out for us in a way that scares us, and through our main character we realize that the only way out of that helplessness is for someone to decide enough is enough, and do something to help out the victim. Every single character here is in someway feeling constrained by what they think they are allowed to do, and only when they try to help out each other are they able to get out of the rut and find their freedom. Even when the story feels horrific and dark, it’s the hope and kindness that keeps us going.
And the embodiment of that kindness first and foremost is our main character Marra. She is the third princess of a small kingdom but politics and diplomacy is not her cup of tea. She finds more fulfillment when she is sent to a nunnery and spends many years there working on her weaving and embroidery, as well as helping women during pregnancy and childbirth. This also gives her a unique perspective on the kinds of issues women face in society, and motivates her to do something about saving her sister from her abusive marriage. I also liked how the religious order she is a part of was very practical about helping out and doing the required things, rather than just preaching faith.
Once she starts on her journey to save her sister, she collects people (and some not people) to help her out and they all become this very quirky found family which is amazing. First is the necromancer dust wife (and she doesn’t need another name) who gets exasperated with the conviction of Marra and can’t help but go along with her. Following them are a bone dog and a demon possessed chicken and just don’t ask me why they are there… you just get attached to them and it’s inevitable and there’s no need to know what their purpose is. Next we get a warrior called Fenris who is still guilty about his past actions and is happy to have a new purpose in his life. While the dust wife is more on the grumpy side, Fenris is a good man who is very considerate about Marra’s boundaries and concerns and they make for a good team. I really liked their low key friendship and it’s potential for more. And the final piece of this found family is Agnes, Marra’s godmother who always blesses every child with health but is hiding so much more. She is the perfect example of someone saying no to their destiny and choosing decency and I loved her. She definitely adds some cheer to the somber proceedings.
We also have many other side characters who make small appearances but everyone is quite memorable. Marra’s mother is a queen and she will do whatever is required to ensure the safety of her people, even if it makes her daughters unhappy and unsafe. Marra’s sister Kania has strength of her own, surviving with what means are available to her, waiting for the day she’ll get the opportunity to get out of her situation. We also have the Northern Kingdom’s very old godmother who has mysterious powers and I really liked the little glimpses we got of her story. All of them together make this story very very uniquely memorable.
In conclusion, this is a book I didn’t know I needed, but I’m so glad I picked it up. This is the kind of fantasy I’m excited to explore – subverts tropes and fairytale expectations, is very thematic but in a way that’s very organic to the story, a very unlikely cast of characters who will slowly grow on you, a perfect blend of dark and creepy and optimism, and overall a story that sucks you in and never lets you go. I also liked how the stakes weren’t world ending but the personal nature of them made us feel more emotional. What I got from it was that we should all try to help someone out in anyway that we can and be kind, and maybe we’ll find our own happiness that way. I deeply enjoyed it and this cements my conviction to read more of the author’s works soon. And I already feel like I’m gonna have a very tough time coming up with my favorites list at the end of the year, but this will surely be one among them.
PS: Thank you to Tor Books and Netgalley for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.