I am going to try and avoid the endless skeleton puns that are rattling my bo-… as I review The Bone Orchard, by Sara A. Mueller. This stand-alone science-fantasy necromantic who-dun-it has a great premise, compelling writing, and a fantastic world. The only thing that kept it from being one of my top picks of the year so far is that this is a four-hundred-page book that feels like it only has two hundred pages worth of story. When I say this, I don’t mean that it lacks depth. There is a lot to dig into here and Orchard is very clever about how it investigates its ideas. However, I think a quarter of this book could have been easily cut which leaves me with a mixed impression.
Charm is a prisoner of a vast and powerful foreign empire. She lives “alone” in a self-proclaimed whorehouse that she built herself in the center of the capital city. The house whores are actually ghouls and ghosts that Charm has raised with her necromancy. The house is ostensibly open to all, but the story focuses on the comings and goings of the emperor and his many sadistic sons. When the emperor is murdered by one of his sons, he summons his favorite prisoner and promises Charm freedom from the binds that hold her if he will find his killer and avenge him. Now Charm must figure out who of the many culprits is the killer and decide if she wants to avenge a man who held her captive – regardless of the reward.
Mueller’s world is one of psychics, and the book is primarily about investigating the many facets of compulsion. Most characters in the book are under a gaes in the form of compulsion to certain actions. Some are bound to service, others to secrecy, and some to strange and complicated oaths that they can’t disobey without dying. All of these restrictions create a perfect playing field for a murder mystery where motives are confusing at best. Add to this a cast of reprehensible villains, as well as additional mysteries lurking in every corner of Charm’s whorehouse, and you get a book that is an exciting mishmash of a number of popular genres and that constantly pulls you into its ideas to the point where you physically need to know more.
However, while the book does a great job forging the way into uncharted terrain, it also comes with some issues. The book spends wayyyyyy too much time re-explaining itself. There are an aggressive number of sections that repeat explanations of already established pieces of worldbuilding. The book never seems to let you sit with an idea and wants to make sure you get it. Along with this idea, there are a number of twists in the book that I struggled with. There is some pretty obvious symbolism pervading the book that was very apparent to me from the start. I thought the ideas were quite cool and I was hoping to see them explored in depth. However, it turns out that this symbolism was actually literal and the connections I found were actually some of the surprise twists. So, instead of a thoughtful exploration of these ideas, I was faced with a book that felt like it was shouting “guess what, surprise, bet you didn’t know X” when it had been pretty apparent to me the whole time. Separately, I also struggled with the characters a bit. The antagonists in particular are so cartoonishly evil that I had a hard time taking them seriously. It felt like Mueller was worried you wouldn’t think of the princes as monsters, so turned the awful up to 11 to make sure her point was clear.
All of this adds up to a book that is extremely clever but feels like it doesn’t want to allow the reader to be clever also. The Bone Orchard found a very innovative way to redo the concept of a murder mystery but then refused to let go of the reader’s hand and let them solve it on their own. I recommend The Bone Orchard as I ultimately think I liked it a bunch, but there were some clear places for improvement in this very unique stand-alone mystery.
Rating: The Bone Orchard – 7.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.