Book Review: The Bone Orchard

The Bone Orchard by Sara Mueller


Charm is many things. Prisoner. Witch. Necromancer. Whore. Madame of a brothel filled with the boneghosts she created. Political pot-stirrer. And on Tuesdays, she is the Emperor’s mistress. Until one Tuesday, when she is summoned from her brothel to the Emperor’s deathbed, and given two final tasks: find the killer, and allow none of the Emperor’s sons to sit on the throne. They are both impossible tasks, but Charm has managed the impossible before. And this time, the impossible could lead to her freedom.

“You’ll find that what you can bear increases a great deal when you are not offered any other choice.”

I have no idea what the Tor editors are drinking, but somehow they have (practically) cornered the market on outstanding and incredible fantasy and science fiction. Do they have witches of their ownβ€”a department of oracles and diviners scrying for the best new talent? Do they sacrifice the soul of an assistant editor every quarter moon to catch the coolest shit in the agenting sieve? Or do they just send out a random intern with a dousing stick and say, “do your thing,” and let them go stumbling into the dark of the slush pile?

Regardless of how they do it (and the varying degrees of ethical implications), I am loving it.

“Where there are no witnesses but murderers, there are no crimes.”

I really LOVED this book, if you couldn’t tell by the five star rating (which is actually kind rare for me, I just happen to cherry pick what books I review on this blog and they tend to be the ones I really like).

It is dark as hell, but so fucking good, with intriguing worldbuilding reminiscent of The Goblin Emperor meets Tanith Lee and T Kingfisher with a dash of Harrow the Ninth, all mixed in the heady politics and intrigue of 17th century France.⁠

First of all, there is a mystery within a mystery, and crimes wrapped within crimes, because empires don’t become Empire without a heaping dose of either. In addition to Empire and the history (particularly the remixing of history) of Empire, there is the complication of magic-workers and immortality.

What are the succession plans, after all, when the Emperor plans on living forever?

What point is there, to be a prince or lordling or scion, when your master will never die? How does absolute power corrupt absolutely when you are immortal…and when you have allowed your mistakes the double-edged gift and curse of immortality as well? Wrapping that all into unsustainable magic and heavy control mechanisms and you get…this book.

Plus, of course, a very interesting spin on trauma response and coping mechanisms that was fairly easy to figure out only because I had literally just reread Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold, and the same technique (more or less) is applied. But there are so many twists and turns that I kept doubting my suspicions on what was actually going on and who was…well, that’s a spoiler.

Anywho, the plotline is relatively simple, although the politics themself are complex. Charm must figure out who murdered the Emperor, while also navigating the regime change and power vacuums.

Charm is a survivor, as are her boneghosts, created by her bone orchard in the backyard and the ghosts living in her mind. There are Pain, Justice, Desire, Shame and Pride, who all have distinct personalities, disabilities and purposes within the salon…and, coincidentally, most all have a specific prince who visits them.

There are also the people with power in the city of Borenguard (and the empire as a whole), operating underneath the Emperor himself, and the police who guard the city (and are bound themselves by mindlocks, which are a tool used to control magic-users and mostly managed by the Emperor himself because Control), and the people within the city who are both innocent bystanders and victims and also implicit in the atrocities of Empire.

Survival is not immoral. Winning our freedom is not immoral.

The writing is so beautiful, and is able to capture so many themes all at once, although the overwhelming theme is survival…and all of those variations on a theme. Of course, there is also the exploration of empire and power and history and justice: who gets to own it, who is owned by it (and to what degree they are owned), what stories are told (and are not told) and by whom, along with the privilege of who gets to forget, and who is forced to remember, and suffer through that remembering.

Who keeps the fragments of a soul? Who holds the weight of a tragedy? Does one atrocity cancel out another?

There is so much more to say about this book, but I don’t have the words, because the words are literally in the book itself and explained far better than I ever could.

Oh, and the book itself is intrinsically queer.

Anywho, if this doesn’t pick up an award nomination, I’m going to kick someone. Possibly several someones.

“The world isn’t all towers of white marble, and it isn’t all gardens of perfectly trimmed grass,” said Pain softly. “Whether we want to look or not, we cannot escape from the world. We can retreat for a while, but it is always there.”

And if that wasn’t enough to get you to read it, then there’s also this:

High fashion with pockets!!!

I received this ARC from NetGalley for an honest review.

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