Tag Archives: gothic

The Bone Orchard

Gothic fantasy novel about identity, ethics and murder

Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, facial difference, suicide

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

Image is of “The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller. The eBook cover is of a skeleton’s hand with its fingers crossed, rising up from fresh pink flowers. There is fungi growing from some of the joints and a greenish smoke between the fingers.

“The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller is a gothic fantasy novel set predominantly in a brothel called Orchard House in the land of Borenguard. Mistress of the house is Charm who manages the other young women she has created: boneghosts called Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain. Throughout the week Orchard House is open to Borenguard’s elite who do business, socialise and enjoy the company of Charm’s young women. Except, that is, on Tuesdays when Orchard House is closed and Charm fulfils her duties as the mistress of the Emperor. However when Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s palace and asked to solve an unthinkable mystery, it soon becomes clear that there is more than just Orchard House and the empire at stake. Sometimes, Charm is not actually Charm; sometimes she is the Lady. With the mindlock that keeps Charm and many other denizens of Borenguard under strict control loosened, the Lady is no longer relegated to the backseat. The careful management Charm has over Orchard House is beginning to fray and the Lady and the boneghosts have their own ideas about what to do next.

This is a book with a really interesting premise with a strong focus on character and worldbuilding. Unlike many fantasy novels, the world remains quite small with only Pain venturing out regularly from Orchard House. Mueller instead focuses on the intricate relationships between Charm and her boneghosts, and the people who visit them in Orchard House. I think the most compelling thing about this book is the self-actualisation of the boneghosts and how Charm reacts to them developing their own feelings and desires that do not always align with hers. There are lots of examples of unexpected relationships and friendships in this book and Mueller has a particular strength in fleshing out alliances and enmities. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of each of the boneghosts and some of my favourite moments in the book are the quiet observation of their interactions with one another. I found it really interesting that each of them has a disability or facial difference of some kind and how Mueller explains this as part of the plot.

While many parts of the book were very compelling, there were some parts that felt muddier. Magic is something to be strictly controlled in this world, and what happens to those with certain magical abilities is a pivotal part of the story. However, when it came to understanding exactly how Charm and the Lady’s magic worked, I felt that Mueller skipped over the detail somewhat which left the scenes in the laboratory perplexing rather than mysterious. The creation of the boneghosts is really the heart and soul of this story and I was left feeling like I had plenty of what but only some why and not nearly enough how. I also found the murder mystery plot to be a little underwhelming. This is really a fantasy novel with some court intrigue rather than a crime or mystery novel, and any suspense about who the perpetrator is was thoroughly diluted by a backdrop of somewhat incomprehensible war and a lack of viable red herrings.

An enjoyable and thought-provoking book with plenty of questions about morality and individuality.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Mystery/Thriller

The Little Stranger

Gothic novel about a declining English manor

Content warning: post-traumatic stress disorder, war, self-harm, paranormal themes

I saw a trailer for the film adaptation of this book a few years ago, and saw that the novel was by Sarah Waters who I have never read, but who is quite well-known for her lesbian fiction. It looked really well shot with beautiful filmography and an eerie vibe. I tend to prefer to read the book before watching the film, and kept an eye out for the book in second-hand bookstores. However, it wasn’t until a couple of years later I finally saw the book at the Lifeline Bookfair. Hilariously, the film doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere online in Australia at the moment, so I still haven’t seen it, but I did finally get a chance to read the book.

Image is of “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters. The paperback book is in front of a sandstone wall with weeds around it. The cover is a film-tie in with a picture of a young white woman with dark hair in a blue dress sitting in a chair, with an older white woman in a lavender dress and a young red-haired man in a tuxedo standing behind. Two children are off to the side and in the distance is a sandstone coloured manor.

“The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a gothic novel about Dr Faraday, a general practitioner in his mid-30s who lives in Warwickshire in the West-Midlands, England. Growing up poor, a pivotal memory for Dr Faraday is visiting Hundreds Hall, a grand Georgian house, as a small boy. Now grown, he is called out to Hundreds to attend to a young maid. Although the house has withered since the war, Dr Faraday is just as mesmerised as he was as a boy, and he soon forms a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. However, it is more than the house that has changed at Hundreds. Initially concerned that the family members are experiencing mental health symptoms, even a rationalist like Dr Faraday begins to find it harder and harder to explain the things that are happening in the house. Increasingly involved, Dr Faraday must ask himself who, or what, is the catalyst.

This is a deeply unsettling book that really seeps into your bones. Waters maintains an exquisite amount of tension throughout the book by giving the reader just enough to spark imagination but not enough to ever result in a satisfying resolution. As the house slowly crumbles so too does the Ayres family. With one misfortune after another, I found myself looking for the culprit. Was it one person, was it another, or was it an inexplicable, sinister force? In the end, nobody seemed trustworthy, not even the narrator Dr Faraday. After the book was finished, I felt like that math lady meme, trying in vain to put all the pieces together. I always feel that a sign of a good book is that you keep thinking about it once it is done, and I definitely kept thinking about this one. Also, even though nothing too overt happens, I found this book genuinely eerie to the point of being actually frightening. At one point, I was reading the book at night while my husband was in the same room playing computer games, and he shouted at something happening on screen, and I just about jumped out of my skin, I was that on edge. I had to abandon reading it that evening and try again the next day during daylight because it was too stressful.

It was such a well-written and well-paced book that there wasn’t really anything negative to say about it except that given it was published in 2009, there were some things that perhaps may not have made it past editors today. One example being Caroline’s elderly Labrador retriever dog, who shares a name with a slur used to refer to Romani people.

A lingering and haunted book that is just the thing if you’re looking for a gothic winter novel.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Horror, Mystery/Thriller

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Gothic novel about two sisters in a mysterious manor

I needed a new audiobook to listen to when I was doing training for my hike in Tasmania, and I had made a shortlist of books that were around 5 hours long which seems to be the sweet spot for my attention span. I had heard of this one before but had no idea what it was about. It looked a bit spooky and I was keen to try something a bit different.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson. The cover is a black and white artwork of two blonde girls and a black cat with townspeople behind them in a style that looks similar to linocut printing

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson and narrated by Bernadette Dunne is a gothic novel about an 18 year old girl known as Merricat who lives in the Blackwood family manor with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian. Constance never leaves the house and its grounds and Uncle Julian is a wheelchair user, so it is up to Merricat to walk into town each week to shop for groceries. Although the people in the village serve her and let her take library books home without ever expecting her to return them, they are also openly hostile towards her. Nevertheless, Thefamily shares a quiet life with Merricat playing with her cat Jonas, Constance working in her garden and Uncle Julian working on his book about the family’s recent history. However, when their cousin Charles turns up the manor, their peaceful existence is thrown into disarray.

This is a delightfully unsettling book that keeps you guessing the whole time. Merricat is a captivating narrator who is utterly unreliable and who appears both younger and older than her actual age. I really enjoyed the way Jackson maintains the sense of uncertainty throughout the book with characters saying contradicting things about what happened to the Blackwood family that are never truly resolved. Merricat’s use of magic and superstition contributes to the mysterious atmosphere and undermines the reader’s understanding of what is real and what is not. Dunne was an excellent narrator who captures Merricat’s apparent innocence perfectly.

A fascinating book that kept me thinking and wondering long after it had finished, and a really good option if you’re in the mood for something eerie.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Horror, Mystery/Thriller