So many times have I picked up a fantasy novel promising to be a modern fairy tale, only to be disappointed almost an equal amount of times by what I’ve just read. Nevertheless the allure persists. I’m fascinated by all myths and fairy tales, all these delightful archetypes and variations, but so few modern authors manage to capture that particular blend of mundane and mystical that sets the fairy tale genre apart from, say, the urban fantasy (which is a genre I also very much enjoy!) It has a lot to do, I think, with a lack of depth in world building, where the fairy tale bits are merely a skin on the real world, a glamour easily seen through by the discerning reader, or even more jarringly, by an inelegant fusion of fantasy with modern sensibilities, usually in the form of clunky dialog/exposition. The ones that do succeed tend to be either Young Adult or novellas; nothing wrong with either of those forms or formats, but sometimes you just want a nice meaty, adult novel to sink your teeth into.
Here in A. G. Slatter’s book of merfolk and witches, kelpies and shapeshifters, I finally feel like I’m holding something at once timeless and refreshingly of the now, perfectly blended to satisfy all my old-fashioned hungers and new. It likely helps that Ms Slatter has written several volumes of fairy tales and cites some of those here, each adding to the rich tapestry that makes this world of monsters and curses seem vibrant and real, as our heroine, Miren O’Malley, must find her way out of a marriage arranged for her by her scheming grandmother Aoife. And can I say how much I appreciate the inclusion of full, lively fairy tales within the narrative? There is nothing more annoying than books that reference fictional storybooks as being foundational texts for the protagonists but then never quote more than a paragraph or two: bonus disappointment when the text quoted is dishwater dull, as is definitely not the case here.
All The Murmuring Bones avoids all the pitfalls of its kindred, presenting us with a truly absorbing Gothic/fairy tale where Miren, the last of the pure-blooded O’Malleys (or at least the most pure-blooded of the last O’Malleys) is betrothed to a rich relative in order to restore the fortunes of the dilapidated Hob’s Hallow, her ancestral home. There she was raised by her grandparents, Aoife and Oisin, who fought each other constantly, and their servants Maura and Malachi. Each loved her and taught her what they knew as best they could, but Oisin’s death forces Aoife to gamble on one last desperate plan to uphold the O’Malley name.
Unfortunately for Aoife, Miren quickly sees right through the urbane facade of her intended to his violent, avaricious heart, and makes plans to escape. The discovery of hidden letters in Oisin’s study will give her something to run to, even as she runs away from a life she never asked for.
Telling any more would be to spoil the many wonders of this story, but I can safely say that Miren is one of the most engaging, feminist heroines I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long while. She doesn’t shrink from the pleasures of sex or the necessities of violence and, more importantly, she stands in solidarity with other women and with anyone taken advantage of and mistreated by the societies and strictures they’re trapped in. I spent a lot of time rooting for her as she furiously thought her way out of trouble, and as she dealt with the complicated emotions that necessarily arise from being part of her strange, some would say cursed, family. Best of all, she never had to do anything stupid in order to advance the plot: it’s so, so great to be able to unreservedly root for a heroine who isn’t perfect but who definitely feels real and not merely a vehicle for the author to get from point A to point B in her own narrative. Also great is the lack of tortured romance: she has a love interest but he’s not the be-all and end-all of her existence, which adds to the refreshing factor of this book.
This was a really great, absorbing read, and I’m desperate to read more of Ms Slatter’s work (she also writes as Angela Slatter, and I’ve loved some of the short stories I’ve read of hers previously.) I’m hoping this is the book that shoots her to global and popular renown, as it deserves to.
All The Murmuring Bones by A. G. Slatter was published March 9, 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including
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