Narratively The Bone Orchard, Sara A. Mueller’s debut novel, has great bones: Charm, a necromancer-turned-concubine, is called to the dying Emperor’s bedside to solve his murder. If she can figure out which of his sons (ranging from inept to insane) poisoned him, she’ll earn her freedom. It’s a Gothic fantasy whodunnit led by a charmingly layered woman who makes the unlikeliest of sleuths.
But there’s more. That freedom isn’t metaphorical; Charm is kept in her place by a mindlock, a contraption of crystal and mechanical gears that grinds the brains of Borenguard’s psychics into submission. The Emperor’s realm teems with those touched by a damning gift that more often drives its recipients to madness than improves their lives. And it’s not just Charm who exists in her own head, but also a persona known as the Lady, the true necromancer who occasionally surfaces to create new bodies in which to transplant all of her pesky emotions like Shame and Desire. The kicker? Charm, and the Emperor, and his sons, and various other key players are nigh immortal, thanks to life-extending Rejuv pills. All of these plot elements feel like almost too much flesh heaped upon these bones, threatening to obscure the cunning shape beneath.
Mueller confidently establishes necromancy as some ephemeral power existing somewhere between magic and science, balancing the psychic gift that allows Charm to absorb and expel emotions with the glass and steel of the growth tanks, filled with precious empathy fluid. Necromancy has had a resurrection (heh) within SFF lately thanks to novels like Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth, but Borenguard stands on its own as a setting I would be eager to see more stories in.
The majority of the action, from sussing out potential assassins and collaborators among Borenguard’s most prominent politicians to Charm clashing with her boneghosts, takes place at the eponymous Orchard House. Forcing characters like the anonymous hive mind of mindlocked guards known as Firedrinkers, or the dashing and enigmatic (but underutilized) Major Nathair, to set foot on the grounds of this house of ill repute, with its bones singing like wind chimes in the garden, puts them squarely on Charm’s turf.
It’s also a keen parallel representing how this infamously burbling madam with her outrageously-dyed hair is actually a prisoner: stuck forever in her nineteen-year-old body, yet possessed of the experience and cynicism of a woman in her fifties, empress of her limited domain.
It’s also just a well-worldbuilt setting. In truth, I haven’t seen a fantasy brothel’s socioeconomic foothold within its city given this much consideration since the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series. Orchard House and its boneghosts conduct a very specific business on the second floor, to be sure, but its ground floor is host to weekly card games with political stakes and mouth-watering meals that tempt men away not from their wives, but from their cooks.
Just as the Lady can grow bone on trees and nurture it in vats, Charm cultivates interpersonal dynamics and political alliances among Orchard House’s regulars. Hers is a remarkable soft power that certainly exists in other similar fantasy archetypes, though perhaps not interrogated as thoroughly as it is here. The more time the boneghosts, especially blind Pride and self-actualized Pain, spend outside of Charm’s head, the more they challenge her motivations—a blend of self-reflection and external criticism. Unfortunately, this often leads to tiresome repetition of personal and political revelations, especially as the perspective jumps around with greater frequency. The same goes for the Lady and Charm, as they trade control of their shared body in the space of a heartbeat when confronted with various allies or antagonists.
It’s something of a relief when characters like Pain get to escape Orchard House for errands, briefly expanding the scope to encompass their neighborhood of Lowtown and how it plays into Borenguard’s larger conflicts over the throne and its shaky alliances with neighboring lands such as Devarik (from which the widowed-and-quickly-remarried Empress hails) and Inshil (a long-forgotten homeland for several surprising ex-pats). Yet the subplot involving Borenguard’s approaching war is more of a jumble despite its fascinating root conflict, i.e., the Emperor’s sons feuding over succession while at least one of them succumbs to madness.
The imperial sons’ bloodthirsty tearing apart of their inheritance sets the clock ticking on Charm fulfilling the Emperor’s last command, yet it is less pressing than the drama of Charm’s existential crises about her true place in society as her identity begins both regressing and evolving. Despite two prominent characters being the Empress’ mistress of wardrobe and Charm’s gaudily-dressed personal seamstress, their common trade does not impact the plot as much as expected.
While the book’s political intrigue culminates in a good old-fashioned masquerade ball, it’s a missed opportunity to delve further and earlier into the disguises and layers that women rely upon, regardless of their station, to move through the world.
The Bone Orchard itself is fascinating, the kind of place that makes you forget about the outside world. Depending on how much you can block out the sounds of war and focus on the eerie elegance of the hanging bones, this can be a debut to get lost in.
The Bone Orchard
is available now from Tor Books.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.