For a very strange atmosphere, for people okay with embracing a bit of confusion, for people okay with doing a little bit of work to figure out what’s going on, for people who adore a fascinating and gothic world. FYI that there’s not a lot of focus on the bone orchard itself, weirdly. More the results of it, the symbol of it.
Charm is a witch, and she is alone. The last of a line of conquered necromantic workers, now confined within the yard of regrown bone trees at Orchard House, and the secrets of their marrow. Charm is a prisoner, and a survivor. Charm tends the trees and their clattering fruit for the sake of her children, painstakingly grown and regrown with its fruit: Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain. Charm is a whore, and a madam. The wealthy and powerful of Borenguard come to her house to buy time with the girls who aren’t real.
Except on Tuesdays, which is when the Emperor himself lays claim to his mistress, Charm herself. Now—Charm is also the only person who can keep an empire together, as the Emperor summons her to his deathbed, and charges her with choosing which of his awful, faithless sons will carry on the empire—by discovering which one is responsible for his own murder.
If she does this last thing, she will finally have what has been denied her since the fall of Inshil—her freedom. But she will also be betraying the ghosts past and present that live on within her heart. Charm must choose. Her dead Emperor’s will or the whispers of her own ghosts. Justice for the empire or her own revenge.
Well, it was weird and absolutely not what I expected. Not bad, but definitely strange. I felt like an outsider the whole time. Sometimes I missed the subtleties of exchanges that were carefully worded between characters to carry secrets. I only understood when someone laid it out plainly later on, or when an action happened that I was confused by and thought about until I connected it to their previous plotting that I had missed. That feeling lasted, and while it should have been more alienating, it was intriguing in a way as well.
I rather liked that this book was not straightforward to me. I rather liked that I felt a bit offkilter, because it put me on more even footing with Charm and the boneghosts. The scheming and intrigue was at times a secret even from me: that’s how clever our characters are.
The way the world works is not explicitly explained either, with the exception of the mindlocks. I had to piece together clues about the magic that they call simply science to understand who and what everyone was. I squirreled away comments about the world’s history to match up the pieces as I gained them, slowly forming the full picture. It was a strange experience for me, and I loved it.
I suspect not everyone would have this experience while reading this, though. I was unusually baffled by this story because I expected a fairly generic story with a secret magic princess, hidden identities, and plot to overthrow / reclaim a kingdom. While those elements were all more or less in there, the composition was quite far from what I thought it would be. Like the boneghosts, they each had their own tweak or quirk. The bones of the story were there, but one femur was shorter than the other, the hands were a bit twisted, and sometimes I was blind to the rest of it.
Getting past the unique haze that I was shrouded in while reading this, the story itself was okay. Just okay. I was so distracted by how strange it all was that I didn’t really care if there was a lot of depth or originality to the story. I was okay with it being fairly standard because I was in wonder at the atmosphere of the world. Imagine a child in a shop for the first time. Even if it’s just a dull store to an adult, the child sees everything shiny and new and doesn’t know to be bothered by the routine, the mundane.
On a technical note, this story is told in multiple points of view. It’s clear when it switches, but it does get a little tangled towards the end.
I will probably remember this book, but I’ll remember it for the way it’s made me feel more than the plot or the overall story. In fairness though: I absolutely could not predict the keys in this story.