54 pages 1 hour read

T. Kingfisher

Nettle & Bone

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide


Ursula Vernon, writing as T. Kingfisher, published Nettle & Bone in 2022. Vernon, an award-winning children’s, young adult, and adult fiction author, grapples with fairy tales and the hero’s journey in this dark tale. This fantasy novel follows the youngest princess, Marra, as she works to save her family and her kingdom. Kingfisher uses a non-linear narrative style, allowing Marra to narrate her past experiences while engaging in her mission to protect her family. Nettle & Bone was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2023.

The citations in this guide reference the 2023 paperback edition published by Tor Books.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of abuse, domestic violence, and gender-based oppression.

Plot Summary

Nettle & Bone focuses on the royal family of the Harbor Kingdom, which contains the only deep harbor between two larger and more powerful surrounding kingdoms. Marra, the youngest princess of the small country, is both protagonist and narrator. The story is non-linear, jumping back and forth between Marra’s past and present.

The novel opens with Marra immersed in the task of assembling a dog out of bones and wire. To gain the power to kill the Northern Kingdom’s prince, Marra must accomplish three tasks set for her by a dust-wife: weave a cloak from owlcloth and nettles, make a dog from bones and wire, and catch moonlight in a jar. The narrative jumps into the past to explain Marra’s determination: Marra’s oldest sister, Damia, marries the prince from the larger Northern Kingdom. The match will protect Marra’s Harbor Kingdom and ensure their future, as Damia’s firstborn will inherit both kingdoms. Marra learns of Damia’s pregnancy shortly after the wedding. News of Damia’s death via an apparent accident arrives only months later.

Kania, Marra’s other sister, then marries the same prince. Shortly after the marriage, Kania announces her pregnancy. Marra, however, moves into a convent. The queen tells Marra that the move aims to keep Marra safe in case anything happens to Kania; in other words, Marra would be the next bride. Marra expresses her dismay, but she thrives in the convent. She loves embroidery and weaving and even relishes menial tasks like mucking goat stalls. When Kania goes into labor, the Queen and Marra go to the northern palace to help with the delivery. During her labor, Kania tells Marra that she cannot let the queen marry her off to the prince next. Marra and the Queen stay for the christening and the gift from the ancient godmother.

Marra returns to life in the convent. She accompanies the Sister Apothecary on birthing visits, helping mothers bring babies into the world. She observes that all women are the same during labor, regardless of rank. Determined never to get pregnant herself, Marra learns methods for birth control. After a period of silence, word arrives that Marra’s niece has died. Marra attends the funeral, where Kania reveals the terrible physical and sexual abuse she endures from her husband, Prince Vorling. Kania is resolved to survive for her people. Horrified, Marra tells her mother, only to learn that her mother already knows. The queen informs Marra that they can do nothing until Kania bears a son.

Resigned to changing things herself, Marra leaves the convent and seeks the aid of a dust-wife, a woman who tends to cemeteries and is said to have magical powers. The local dust-wife directs her onward to the most powerful dust-wife. This more powerful dust-wife sets Marra the three impossible tasks. When Marra completes the first two, the dust-wife realizes that Marra will not give up. Changing her tune, she joins Marra, and the two embark on a quest to kill Prince Vorling. Along with the dust-wife’s demon-possessed chicken, the two travel to the underground market to purchase a tool. In the market, their party gains a knight named Fenris. The party then seeks out Marra’s godmother, Agnes. Though Agnes blessed Marra and her sisters at their christenings, she has avoided all contact since, preferring to live on her meager farm. Marra soon discovers why: while Agnes lacks talent with giving gifts, the godmother—much to her embarrassment—excels at giving curses. Agnes joins the group and curses a chick to guide them onward.

The chick leads them through the walled city. They take lodgings at a home whose proprietor has an animated puppet permanently perched on her shoulder. The puppet cruelly controls her, and the dust-wife explains that the doll’s life stems from the love the human poured into it. Marra tries to free the woman, but the woman rejects assistance: Her attachment to the abusive puppet runs too deep. When the group finally reaches the palace, they discover that Vorling’s godmother protects the royal family. Marra also finds that Kania is about to go into labor with another child.

When Agnes and Marra visit the ancient godmother, Marra recognizes that the godmother’s weaving represents a map to the maze of catacombs under the palace. Marra and her company sneak into the catacombs and, after several encounters with the dead, successfully break the curse set by the old king. Vorling’s godmother can finally die; she passes peacefully. Assuming the role of family godmother to Kania’s newborn son, Agnes curses him to have no father. Fulfilling the curse, Fenris slays Vorling. Kania seizes power in the resulting chaos, rising to queen regent. Marra and her crew disband in a warm parting, with the exception of Fenris, who decides to adventure onward with Marra.