Nothing is fair. Nothing is right…Nothing is fair, except that we try to make it so. That’s the point of humans, maybe, to fix things the gods haven’t managed.
Marra carried the knowledge that her sister hated her snugged up under her ribs. It did not touch her heart, but it seemed to fill her lungs, and sometimes when she tried to take a deep breath, it caught on her sister’s words and left her breathless.
Books about sisters are out right now for me…due to some recent life developments they are just too painful. But a book about a youngest sister who thinks her sister hates her? (Thinks that because her sister tells her “I hate you and I hope you die.”) Way too close to those developments.
But I pressed on, because a librarian friend had loved it so much.
And I’m very glad I did.
Nettle and Bone tells the story of Marra, who is the youngest of three princesses in a small kingdom whose power is that it includes a port city–and the two nations next to it do not. Her oldest sister, Damia, is married to the prince of the Northern Kingdom, the marriage lasts only six months, as Damia dies only a few months after the wedding. Soon the middle sister, Kania, is betrothed to the same prince, and Marra is sent to live in a convent. She likes living there, until she realizes that Kania is suffering. The prince is abusing her and only keeps from killing her because she has yet to produce an heir (but manages to get pregnant fairly often; it’s not described but you can imagine why she has so many miscarriages). Not only is Kania suffering, Marra realizes that she is the backup sister: if Kania also dies, she will be wedded to the prince.
And so Marra sets off on a quest to find a solution to saving both her sister and herself.
Very much not really a book about sisters hating each other, Nettle and Bone is a mashup of sorts of some fairy tale tropes. Namely a princess setting off on a quest to do three impossible tasks in order to earn the skill or knowledge to do something else impossible. There are godmothers, although not like the ones you already know. A dust-wife, who I think is wholly invented in this story and whom I loved almost more than Marra. A dog made of bones, a cloak of nettles. It is also a very feminist tale; it was a good follow up to The Marriage Portrait because it covers some of the same ground: too-young girls being married for political or financial reasons and the way that women are historically (and still, of course) not particularly valued as individuals or even actual people, but as vessels or coins or contracts.
Plus: it was funny.
(I am the worst reader to advise on humor. Almost everything that is supposed to be funny is not funny to me. The humor here is subtle and dry, provided mostly by one character, but I did literally laugh out loud several times.)
And the sister’s dislike of Marra? It almost becomes invisible. It’s just a thing they resolve as they grow up and have other experiences and realize they can rely on each other. Kania isn’t wholly a victim, either; her sister does save her but she also uses her own strength and wisdom to make the saving more feasible.
I loved this book and am so glad I read it. It is one of those that is full of images, situations, and characters who will stay with me.