The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller (book review).

In the capital of Borenguard, the rich and the powerful meet for fine dining, gambling and intimate company at Orchard House. The trees in the orchard are made of bones that Charm crafts into living servants to entertain her guests and listen for their secrets.

Charm is the Emperor’s mistress. Taken from her home as an exotic prize after a bloody, remorseless war, Charm has turned her prison into a vehicle for revenge, waiting for the day when she would be free enough to act. Now the Emperor is dead. On his deathbed, he gave Charm a final command and then she will be free. Find which of his sons has killed him and, once she is free of her prison, can she free herself from the past?

Truly awful things have happened to and around Charm and while they do not happen ‘on camera’, readers please be aware this book references rape, sexual abuse, torture and trauma. These acts of violence are not laid out for titillation. This is a story about a survivor. There are layers of evil deeds in this novel where we are asked if the action justifies the means and what about acts performed because of the first acts? Is what Charm does now and did then and how she survives reasonable or justifiable?

Charm makes her prison into a bordello to thumb her nose at her captor but it also gives her a place to reflect. Each of her servants is crafted from her bone trees and infused with a personality, a life that is part of her own. All those parts she doesn’t want to manage or can’t manage, put out of her head for some peace but they are also reminders of what is to be faced.

There is no exposition here. You are sent into Charm’s world like you’ve been thrown off a pier. Sink or swim. Terms like ‘mindlock’ are thrown around without explanation until chapters further on. The reader is forced to embrace the world and its differences to our own in order to move on with the plot which I found extremely immersive. This might not be for everyone though. Things are not explained. Mueller has created a complex world that she opens a door into and shoves us without a map or a guide.

The magic system is one part Frankensteinian necromancy, one part crystalline clockwork and one part psychics, including everything from fire-starting to clairvoyance. The politics Charm is playing are both local and international, past and present. Characters flow in and out of Orchard House with barely an introduction. Mueller has taken the lessons of short story telling and put them in her first novel. Each word matters and the reader must pay attention or get left behind.

Even though it comes in at under 500 pages, this book felt longer. The mental leaps I took to piece hints together wove a denser tapestry than I realised. It was only when I was finished that I grasped how many pieces I wanted to investigate further. This world has so much scope. Perhaps there will be other books set in Charm’s world but I hope we leave Charm as a protagonist behind now. Her story is wrapped up well in ‘The Bone Orchard’ but the world and other characters are full of tantalising mysteries I’d like to uncover.

‘The Bone Orchard’ is a darkly gothic fantasy full of psychopaths and murderers, horrific revenge and problematic victories. While not a light read, it was easy in that the words slipped inside my head to make pictures. This book sucked me in and didn’t let me go until I was done. I’d tell myself just one chapter but three would race by. If the idea of a darker version of Scott Lynch’s ‘Lies Of Locke Lamora’ or a more literary version of Anne Bishop’s ‘Black Jewels’ trilogy I think you’ll like ‘The Bone Orchard’.

LK Richardson

February 2022

(TOR, 2022. 432 page hardback. Price: $26.99 (US), £20.00 (April 2022). ISBN: 978-1-25077-694-5)

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