Liz Bourke Reviews The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller
The Bone Orchard, Sara A. Mueller (Tor 987-1-250-77694-5, $26.99, 432pp, hc) March 2022.
The Bone Orchard is Sara A. Mueller’s debut novel. Aesthetically, it has more than a touch of the gothic; thematically, its arguments about autonomy and identity, personhood and empire, remind me strikingly of Arkady Martine’s science fiction, Max Gladstone’s Craft books, and A.K. Larkwood’s debut The Unspoken Name. Bones and traps and secrets, oh my!
Borenguard is the capital of the empire of Boren, built – as all empires are – on violence. Its emperor has control of the technology of the mindlock: a device that prevents people with magical gifts from going insane from the effect of their gifts on their minds. But the mindlock also compels those who bear it to carry out the emperor’s orders, and the emperor is the only one with a precise enough gift to tune the mindlock to make those orders stick.
Orchard House is where the wealthy and influential men of Borenguard come to drink, play cards, dine, politic, and find congenial company. It’s the city’s most exclusive brothel, whose madam, Mistress Charm, is the emperor’s mistress. Her gift is the creation of boneghosts, women who resemble her and whose personalities are made from the parts of her divided psyche, but whose bodies are grown from trees made of bone. She bears a mindlock and cannot disobey the emperor’s commands – the emperor who destroyed her people and who has kept her subjugated for decades. Until now. On his deathbed, the emperor gives her one final command: discover which of his sons is responsible for his murder and avenge his death. He essentially charges her to make sure none of those sons successfully inherits his throne, because none of them are worthy of it.
Those sons are Strephon, bitter, covetous, and physically cowardly; Luther, a moral coward and a selfish, ineffectual man; Phelan, a paedophile without much in the way of self-control, and Aerleas, insane, savage, and a projective psychic who has been Boren’s best and worst weapon of war for fifty years. Identifying which of them conspired at the murder of their father is a job for which Charm has few enough tools. Bringing them down – and surviving the experience in a city that’s a bone of contention between multiple contenders for the throne – is a whole other set of problems.
But Charm is not without allies, even aside from the embodied parts of her divided psyche. Some of those parts, which she has named after which aspect of her she broke off from herself and did not want to reabsorb – Pride, Desire, Justice, Shame, Pain – are more like whole people than others. Pain, especially, has more individuality and capacity for growth, and it’s through Pain that Charm makes the acquaintance of Captain Oram, the mindlocked commander of Borenguard’s mindlocked and psychically linked city guard. Oram is a man torn between orders and his own sense of what’s right as the new emperor Strephon takes control of Borenguard, and the mindlock means his ability to direct his own actions is limited. He is nonetheless sympathetic to many of Charm’s aims.
So is Major Nathair, an imperial cousin whose particular gifts have caused them to survive military service under Aerleas with their body and their sanity intact. Perhaps the most surprising of Charm’s occasional allies is Ylsbeth, the emperor’s widow, now wed to Strephon much against her will: her scope for action is also limited, but symbolically significant. These, and a handful of politicians that Charm has known for years, are the allies on which she might possibly call… but can she rely on any of them, if she cannot even rely on all of herself? There are secrets in her past that her own mind has worked very hard to try to protect herself from. That, as much as anything else, might be the final barrier between Charm and her freedom.
The Bone Orchard is a quietly angry book. Trauma and power and consent and autonomy: powerful men fucking people over and mostly women both suffering the worst of it and also picking up the pieces. It’s strikingly atmospheric. It has a gothic air – a sense of a dreadful, haunted secret lurking around the next corner, the sense that your own perceptions could very easily betray you, your own mind – and it marries this deftly to thoughtful and twisty political intrigue: the struggle for power where not everyone’s an utter arsehole but anyone could be, where a single misstep could bring ruin on everything you care about. It paces itself carefully, layering its implications and revelations and fresh perils in a delicate fretwork of tension that comes together in a conclusion that – for all I could see its outlines coming – still managed to surprise and entertain me with its details.
It’s a damn good read, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I look forward to seeing where Mueller’s going to go from here.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the April 2022 issue of Locus.
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