There are a lot of books you can wax effusive about by saying that you stayed up too late, that you missed your subway stop, or that you forgot to adhere to some other daily tasks. I’ve done all of that and more for good books, but The Bone Orchard is the first book I read in the shower. Yes, that’s right. I had to take a shower and I had to keep reading, so I assembled a makeshift stand out of shampoo bottles and shaving cream, and I propped up my ereader so that I could wash my hair and peer through the glass at the screen at the same time. That’s how much I couldn’t put this book down.
The Bone Orchard is a political thriller set in a magical empire, but more than that, it’s a compassionate but unflinching look at trauma. Let’s be clear, though: this isn’t grimdark. There is optimism here, but it’s hard-won optimism. So much grimdark revolves around people making self-serving decisions in bleak, hugely violent worlds. One of the hallmarks to me is that grimdark fantasy treats hope and goodness as naïve, if not outright pointless, and in no way is that the story Mueller is telling. There is goodness and hope in The Bone Orchard. There just isn’t much room for innocence.
Not much room for Shame either. Or Justice. But Desire does well enough, and Pride, and of course Pain. Mistress Charm couldn’t get very far without Pain.
These attributes are indeed parts of Charm/the Lady, but they are also semi-separate beings, “ghosts” who are separated from the core personality and distilled into bodies grown specifically for the purpose. The titular “bone orchard” is where Charm cultivates the strange trees that make her multiplicity possible. That she can separate herself is hardly an issue; Mueller is much more interested in why. What could drive a woman to become such a parliament of selves, peeling off such essential aspects and having them take up various positions in her brothel?
The visitors to Charm’s pleasure-house don’t find these name-titles strange. After all, Charm is a fixture of Boren society, her establishment the very finest not only in providing sexual services but in offering most physical indulgences. Fine food, alcohol, and company are all available to those who have the means and station to avail themselves—or, sometimes, just the station. Princes aren’t very good at paying their bills, and they’ve racked up quite the debt in not just money, but in pain and blood.
Charm is beset by the princes of the empire, each exquisitely terrible in his own way. But only one of them killed the emperor—at least, that’s what the emperor thinks. On his deathbed, he charges Charm to find which one of them killed him and bring them to justice. How, though? Charm cannot defy the emperor or his sons outright. Not only would that guarantee her death, she also has a mechanism implanted in her brain that forces her to obey the emperor even beyond his death. However, it also makes it possible for her to use her power without going mad.
Everything in The Bone Orchard is like this, a double-edged sword, the good with the bad. The virtue and the trauma of survival and the weight of pragmatism. Pragmatism is very heavy—you have to carry your consequences with you. You have to know that you are saving some but not others. You have to acknowledge how that breaks you into pieces, and then you have to keep going anyhow. Better, though, to do something than to argue incessantly for what should be done, if only it were an ideal world. Idealism is pointless not just without action, but also without effectiveness. You can die for a cause and change nothing. Far better, Mueller says, to compromise and get something than retain your ideals and help no one, not even yourself. It is right to flee if flight ensures your survival. It is right to accept comfort if it helps you keep going, even if that comfort comes from a person or place you don’t like.
The Bone Orchard comes down very harshly on absolutists. Moral purists and sadistic psychopaths share similar fates, their inflexibility ultimately their downfall. You can argue that the idealist Fergus’s actions inspired sympathy from the populace. But you could equally argue that Fergus’s uncompromising position forced Oram into an unbearable situation, one that caused him physical as well as moral torture. Only when he had sufficiently recovered from this dissonance could he live once again, or save anyone else.
Charm, too, may have a few lingering illusions about absolute good and absolute evil, but she is forced to relinquish them. They are the product of her youth and naivety, and Justice in the end does less for her than Pain. The simple ability to endure pain, to suffer and not give up, is the first lesson. The second is compromise. Better to bend than to break, says The Bone Orchard. And better to break and keep going than to give up.
The Bone Orchard isn’t offering a blithe amnesty for the morally grey majority, though. It isn’t trying to celebrate the vast number of us who are doing our best and muddling through. No, it’s still working in the moral extremes, asking hard questions about power, privilege, and the kinds of choices you can’t take back. What are the consequences of empire, of armed forces, of inheritance? What is the nature, from root to fruit, of trauma?
Not since Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles have I read such a thorough and unflinching examination of traumas both intimate and imperial. The Bone Orchard is interested in many of the same questions about sexual violence, political violence, and personal vs. collective responsibility. That means this is a book about complex trauma, and is necessarily intersectional on a personal level as well as in the political realm.
It may seem odd, but I think the best point of comparison for this book is actually Becky Chambers’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built, which epitomizes Hopepunk. The Bone Orchard is not Hopepunk, not at all. But they share a kind of fearlessness, a relentlessness that looks despair full in the face and says no. Chambers writes about the inherent good of consciousness; Mueller is writing about the inherent worth of survival. For both authors, living is sufficient. It does not mean we should not hope for more, but to live is the most urgently sacred act.
This book was extraordinarily cathartic for me, not least because it belongs so well in this age of pandemic. We have few good choices, we who want to protect ourselves and protect others. Finding a balance is hard enough, and finding a way to make things better is even harder. But Charm is a singularly (though maybe not singular) brave protagonist, and it is her fortitude that allows her to succeed as much as anything else. She is not perfectly clever. She is not perfectly good. She is not even perfectly herself—she is divided, literally and figuratively. Nevertheless, she endures. And I very much hope that like her, The Bone Orchard will likewise endure, because its lessons are deep and timeless.
The Bone Orchard will be released March 22nd.