“I never learned the knack for waking. Consciousness hung over me like a sodden rag, weighing on my eyelids and muffling my ears, yet even my stifled senses did not spare me the indignity of hearing my name screamed across a public place.“
Brood of Bones is the first in a series about Hiresha, an expert in jewel enchantment and sufferer of severe narcolepsy. She has journeyed back to her hometown, Morimound, at the request of the Siri the Flawless, city arbiter. Accompanying Hiresha are her protector, the Spellsword Deepmand, and her servant, Maid Janny. The tale begins as their carriage travels through a city bazaar where they discover Siri is imprisoned–and pregnant–at seventy. Soon Hiresha realizes every woman she sees appears to be pregnant. As she works through her own envy and regret, she investigates the puzzle of the pregnant women of Moribound. Could the city be facing the foretold “Seventh Flood” of disaster? Protecting the women and Moribound may mean an alliance with forbidden magic–and the malevolent Feasters.
It is hard to review a single book in a series, especially from a beginning author, as each book ends up being compared to the series development as much as the genre in general. I enjoyed Brood of Bones, A.E. Marling’s first novel, but I suspect that my enjoyment was related more to the character and world background than the story. That sounds as if I’m damning it with faint praise, but truly, it is because I’m comparing it to two of his other books which were quite wonderful in story and imagery. Some time ago, Marling offered me a reviewer’s copy of Fox’s Bride (my review). I enjoyed it a great deal, and ended up with two other of his books in the series, Brood of Bones (free on Amazon at the time) and Dream Storm Sea. So I approached this book looking to fill in the history of Enchantress Hiresha. The storyline centering on a plague of pregnancies, and Hiresha’s own emotional conundrums held less resonance for me.
The fantasy setting Marling has created has pleasantly unusual–but constrained–magic systems. Most of Hiresha’s magic takes place in a dream-laboratory, where her skills there allow her recreate observations and further analyze people’s reactions, much as a detective might replay an interview tape. I enjoyed the combination of reasoning and magic as an approach to problem-solving. In terms of world-building, not much in the world is explained outright, but rather pieced together as one reads. It occasionally gives the sense that one might have dropped into the middle of a series, with the fallout of earlier evens still resonating and relationships already in place. As I’m rather fond of the immersion school of world-building, I didn’t mind, but it may prove frustrating to those who prefer a more explicit style. On the bonus side, it means very rare “as you know…” type explanatory conversations!
I find Hiresha an extremely interesting heroine, and look forward to reading more about her story and her unusual magic. One of Marling’s strengths is characterization, but characters here feel more underdeveloped compared to his normal high standard. Initially, it felt as if the descriptive flourishes were too frequent and contradictory, making Hiresha sound more than a tad over-dramatic and mercurial. It could be, however, that it was partially an issue of immaturity. While it was pleasant to have some of Hiresha’s story filled in, particularly an eventful meeting with a Feaster, I found she tended to be repetitive. So young! So over-confident! So certain in her morality, so focused on her thwarted dreams and jealousy for those who can achieve the ‘normal’ instead of accepting and embracing herself.
As always, I love the flourishes of humor throughout the story:
“Morimound’s second priest, Salkant of the Fate Weaver, I believed, had slunk behind me in a manner most discourteous. If one had the habit of sneaking up on people then bells tied to one’s feet would be a matter of simple courtesy.”
Dialogue with the Lord of the Feast was particularly amusing, and I confess that I mostly read for their interactions and developing connection. Their dialogue bears a pleasing similarity to a Benedict-Beatrice dynamic, with Maid Janny playing a bawdy Dogberry-type (Much Ado About Nothing).
“He raised his voice:and said, ‘And you needn’t wear all those ridiculous gowns.’
‘Your gowns are overdone. And I say that as a man with rubies on his shoes.’
‘I have never been so offended!’
‘I am sorry,’ he said, ‘to hear it. You should have been offended more often.’
‘Well! Those are spinels on your shoes, not rubies.’”
Overall, I’d recommend consideration of it if you are a fan of unusual fantasy, or looking to fill more blanks in Hiresha’s world. If you are just starting in the world, I’m very fond of Fox’s Bride and Dream Storm Sea.