Friday, January 27, 2023

Short Book Reviews: A Complex, Brilliant Character-Driven Fantasy

The Bone Orchard
, by Sara A. Mueller (Tor)

With a style reminiscent of Tanith Lee and a world as complex and byzantine as M. A. Carrick’s, Sara A. Mueller spins a tale of magic, identity, politics, and hidden pain. The Bone Orchard is difficult to describe in terms of premise or plot because so much of the reading experience involves following the development of unreliable narrators who may or may not be the severed aspects of a single person. But who that person truly is and how much autonomy the other aspects possess pose questions that Mueller reveals gradually and with consummate skill.

We know that severe early trauma increases the risk of dissociative identity disorder, formerly called multiple personality. Suppose, then, that it were possible to create a synthetic version of yourself, using bones grown on trees, for example, a “you” that would bear that unbearable pain? Or take away your shame upon herself? At what point would you cease to be you? How many aspects of yourself must you lose to become someone else, and what would be left?

From the very first pages, I was enthralled by The Lady, Charm, Pain, Pride, Shame, and Justice, and how they each survived (or perished) in the game of ruthless, often lethal magical politics. I especially loved how each found a wellspring of compassion in her burden, especially Pain. The unexpected love story was like a chocolate left on a pillow.

Mueller writes that it took her many years to create this story, and the care she took shines through the depth and complexity of the world and its people. All too often, a debut novel that is the product of long development is followed by another that is comparatively rushed by early success. I hope Mueller is given the same scope for her next novel. If The Bone Orchard is any indication of what we can look forward to, it will be a treasure. She is definitely a talent to watch.


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