Sara A. Mueller, The Bone Orchard
Sara A. Mueller, The Bone Orchard, Tor, 2022.
The Bone Orchard is a fantasy novel with an impressive world building, a magical system that will intrigue and impress, and is overall a sweeping story about a revolution and a woman's quest for her autonomy, in body and mind.
Charm is the Emperor's mistress. She didn't look for the position. Her country was invaded by the Emperor's nation and she was taken prisoner because of her psychic abilities. To survive, she has split her personality into "ghosts": Justice, Pride, Pain, Shame. They've become prostitutes for the nobility and gained safe status. But they hide another secret woman, the Lady, that no-one must find in Charm's mind. When the Emperor dies, he gives Charm a command: she must find who killed him.
TW: paedophilia (not described on page), physical abuse, slavery, death of a child, non consensual sex (not on page)
Disclaimer: I know nothing about sex workers so I'm unable to say if the representation is harmful and/or bad.
The complexity of the characters is a tremendous highlight in The Bone Orchard. None of the women is easy to love. They can be unbending or unfair, they make bad decisions or fail to act. Among them all, my favourites were Pain and Charm. Pain receives all the physical pain the others have to endure, but she's also someone with remarkable compassion. Charm is someone you can dislike at times, but in the end, you find yourself rooting and cheering for her. Because of this complexity, you empathise with them fairly quickly and the pain and injustice glue you to the book because you hope that someone--a lot of someone actually--will get their just desserts for what they put Charm and her ghosts through.
Mueller put them in a world populated by many other characters. The nobility are the most developed among them, from those who hold to ideals, to the pragmatists, to the irretrievably corrupted. The gallery is impressive and very well done. But I regret that, for a story that takes a political stance, the popular characters are more hastily sketched. Among them though, the seamstress stands out.
The Bone Orchard is first and foremost a novel about a woman's quest for her autonomy, both in body and mind. The splitting of her personality through the ghosts allows Mueller to study how women can deny some of their experiences to keep going, or allow themselves to be blind to what is truly happening to them or around them. I particularly appreciated that Mueller's gallery of characters included a non-binary transmasculine character in an act of inclusive feminism that is currently sorely needed.
But The Bone Orchard is also a story about a revolution. The Emperor's sons are all appalling and there's no argument to be made for divine right by birth. The enslaved psychics will fight to free themselves from the device that keeps them obedient. And the people? This is where Mueller fails in my opinion. They remain in the background, often bodies strewn on the ground, without agency and left to the mercy of whoever will win the fight.
In the end, both themes are linked. A woman's quest for her autonomy is one part of a larger revolution that must happen. It may be a cultural gap between me and Mueller that I found her revolution not radical enough.
The novel starts slowly and the mystery of the magic system might throw off some readers. Although never properly explained, I thought it wasn't necessary and once you're past the initial confusion the story grabs you. The pace picks up about one third in, and it becomes very hard at this point to let go of the book. Although The Bone Orchard is on the long-ish side, it's difficult to say that it should have been trimmed down. Every scene is important in the overarching story and brings us to a conclusion that feels satisfying for every character.
(OK, almost. One or two were dispatched a bit too hastily in my opinion, but I've just said it was on the long-ish side so I'm trying to remain cohesive!)
The Bone Orchard is a sweeping but not easy story. Despite my niggles, I dived into it and read way past the time it was reasonable to switch off the light. It's carried by fascinating characters that will remain with me for a while.
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I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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