Source: DRC via NetGalley (Macmillan/Tor-Forge, Tor Books)
Pub. Date: March 22, 2022
Why did I choose to read this book?
I seem to be on a necromancy kick this year. An orchard made of bones? Awesome. Plus this is a debut, and I like to provide a review for a debut author who is doing something weird and different.
What is this book about?
This is an excellent question that I thought I knew the answer to before I started reading, and now that I’m done, I’m not sure I know at all. The book and the promos and the synopsis make this sound like it’s a mystery/fantasy where a whore has to find the killer of the emperor and choose his replacement. I can tell you very emphatically that this is NOT what this book is about. I think that’s what Mueller wished it was about, and toward the end she seems to try to make it be about that again, but this book took on a life of its own, like the boneghosts of Orchard House.
This book is about how we compartmentalize our trauma to survive, how we put our best faces forward and our bad faces upstairs. This book asks what the proper balance between living and imprisonment is, and whether longer life is worth giving up control of your mind or your body. All this is explored through the eyes of a whorehouse madame and her artificial whores, which are parts of herself that live outside of her to save the real woman from experiencing painful and difficult emotions.
I guess a good way to sum up what this book is about would be the phrase “Where do you draw the line?” or “When is enough enough?” Honestly if this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that you can absolutely go way farther than you ever thought, especially emotionally/mentally.
What is notable about the story?
I love a story that follows a woman that is ten times as smart as everyone around her and is simultaneously radically underestimated because she is a woman (and often for other reasons too). Charm isn’t the absolute smartest (there are things at court and in Uptown that she has to absorb through the wealthy patrons that visit Orchard House) but she’s good at working a mark and playing up her femininity in real black widow style. It was interesting to see her work her way up to the palace and closer to the emperor’s murderer.
The magic is rooted in psychic abilities that manifest in different ways. The emperor is a telepath and has developed something called a mindlock that helps more powerful psychics manage their power so they don’t burn out, go mad, or destroy everything around them. Charm’s ability seems to be necromancy and the ability to implant portions of her personality into the skeletons that she reanimates. She’s also able to grow plants and trees from bones, hence The Bone Orchard. It’s a different take on natural abilities that I was glad I read, because I saw yet another way that I can incorporate “abilities” into my own stories.
Was anything not so great?
While full of excellent explorations this story suffers from a couple of issues. First, there is a lack of focus. The emperor dies in the first couple of chapters and then it’s almost the entire book and the ascension of a new emperor before we get back around to “oh yeah, I’m supposed to figure out who killed that other emperor” and even then it’s morphed from that to “I guess I’ll just kill all of his sons to be sure.” The middle part of the book is still good in its own right, but in terms of staying true to the central motivation of the main character Charm, it goes quite a bit afield of before slicing through the trees back to the path again right at the end.
Second, and more serious in my personal opinion, was the backwards style reveal process surrounding Charm, her boneghosts, and how she came to be at Orchard House. Mueller makes you wait until almost the very end until everything is revealed, and it prevented me from becoming fully invested in any of the characters. You never really know who anyone is outside of their titles, you’re only provided glimpses of the war and events that came before the start of the book, and this lack of depth in the worldbuilding also prevents any of the characters from having depth as well, since who they all are is because of the war. I am notorious for quitting books because I don’t care about the characters, so it’s saying something that the story was good enough to keep me reading to the end despite this drawback.
Third, and more of a content warning than something I have any kind of quibble with, there is a LOT of violence towards women in this book. Beatings, rape, mutilation, suicide, murder – I was surprised that the book jacket or a forward of some kind didn’t give a bit of warning ahead of the first chapter. It is 2022 and at this level of trauma I feel like a small “um, watch out” wouldn’t have been out of line here.
What’s the verdict?
This one is a solid 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. There’s too much here that isn’t explained or explored, and my investment in the characters wasn’t deep enough to warrant 4 stars. It was a good story that probably either should have either been another 100 pages, or perhaps split into a duology to allow all the information to get fleshed out. If you’re into weird magic and exploring trauma with a take charge, flawed main character, definitely add this one to your TBR pile.
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