The Bone Orchard follows the story of Charm, mistress of the Emperor and keeper of the local tea house – a cross between inn and brothel. Her free will limited through a mindlock, the Emperor offers her a chance at freedom if she manages to solve a murder and bring the culprit to justice. There’s just one snag in the plan: the murder Charm needs to solve is the Emperor’s own, as he has been poisoned and is dying imminently. In terms of how the story is told, it is probably most reminiscent of a less out-there Gideon the Ninth, in some ways very fragmented and leaving the reader to figure much of the detail out for themselves. There is a sort of necromancy too, which strengthens the similarities (more on that later), and I feel like the very slow dripping of lore and backstory made me make the connection. That being said, liking or disliking the one won’t necessarily mean the same for the other, I think.
What I enjoyed most about The Bone Orchard was it’s magic system. Sitting somewhere between necromancy and Frankenstein-style science, it allows Charm to grow companions in vats, who act almost as extensions of her own personality and staff the tea house. This is pretty unique and I found it quite interesting to read, and see how these characters interacted with each other. I did feel like they didn’t become as plastic as I would have liked – the book definitely puts style over substance in that regard. The Bone Orchard is reminiscent of a puzzle where pieces need to be slotted together, of a game of chess where the figures start out as pawns and take the shape of the more complex figures as the game goes on and they move across the board. But nevertheless, they conform to archetypes more than truly human characters.
Ultimately I did find The Bone Orchard a very satisfying read, even if I’m not sure what to make of it in many ways. It is not the sort of book that is so compelling that you read it in a single setting, more one that you read slowly, savour and brood over. The prose is delectable but, and I’m curious to follow the author’s future career and read more of her writing, even if this particular book won’t make the list of my favourite books. The mystery is one that isn’t easy to guess and does keep the reader on their toes until very late in the story, which is something I really appreciated – and the way the climax and ending played out really did make a huge difference in my final verdict on the book as a whole.