Trigger warnings for references to rape, pedophilia, and physical abuse.
Charm is a hard woman to figure out. Most people know that she came from an area brutally conquered by the emperor but, now, she closes her exclusive brothel on Tuesdays to cater to that emperor. She seems to have made a very cozy nest for herself, as far as we can tell at the beginning of Sara A. Mueller’s enthralling The Bone Orchard. It wasn’t until near the end of Charm’s story of revenge, politics, healing, and hope that I understood Charm’s contradictions–and she seems to finally understand herself.
Charm is a woman in a gilded cage. A bit of magic implanted in her skull keeps her from doing anything more rebellious than coloring her hair in bright colors while only wearing mourning black. Almost as soon The Bone Orchard opens, Charm is summoned to the imperial palace where the emperor who ruined her life and destroyed her country lies dying after someone poisoned him. Once there, the emperor gives Charm one final set of commands: she has to find out which of his three sons poisoned him and make sure that none of them sit on the throne. He then reverses all of his other commands so that, once she finishes this last task, she’ll be free.
As if Charm doesn’t already have enough on her plate, The Bone Orchard takes us behind the scenes at Orchid House and its very unique staff. The women who work there are bone ghosts, created by Charm and a mysterious woman known as the Lady. They are created from bones grown behind Orchid House, then animated by ghosts known as Pain, Pride, Justice, and Shame. We learn where the ghosts came from over the course of the book in some of the best character development I’ve ever read.
I loved a lot of The Bone Orchard. Charm and her women are fantastic creations. The magic system is original and deadly. And the politics are top notch. The only thing that bothered me about this book is the way that mental disorders and illness are treated. Where Charm’s psyche is portrayed with compassion and depth, the men are written off as irredeemably insane and violent. The magic system probably make that true, but it was still an odd note to strike. This is definitely Charm’s book and there are other great characters here. Like I said, I loved a lot of this book. I just wished that every part was written as well as Charm was.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.