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17 March 2021

#BlogTour #Review - All the Murmuring Bones by AG Slatter

All the Murmuring Bones
AG (Angela) Slatter
Titan Books, 8 April 2021
Available as: PB, 368pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
ISBN (PB): 9781789094343

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of All the Murmuring Bones via NetGalley to consider for review, and for inviting e to take part in the book's blogtour.

'Stories are history, whether they're true or not'.

All the Murmuring Bones is the story of Miren O'Malley. The last surviving member of an ancient, and formerly rich and powerful, family, she has to discover and confront the sources of that wealth - the bargains and crimes that supported it, and the failures that have led to its erosion - if she is to survive and prosper.

The history of Miren's family is not known directly. Rather it's encoded in their ancient and rambling house - Hob's Hollow - and in a handwritten book of fairy tales - of the dark and dangerous, rather than twee, sort ('Other families have stories of curses, cold lads and white ladies, but we have old gods, merfolk and monsters'). Many of these are given at appropriate points in the book, Miren calling them up for support in dark moments or interrogating them to try and understand what is going on. She's hampered in that by not knowing her own immediate history either (except that her parents are dead, and that she has been brought up by her grandmother Aoife and grandfather Óisín) so this book is also a story of discovery for her. 

As the story opens, and after a scene setting introduction, we see Miren and Aoife coping with the aftermath of Malachi's death and the likely final collapse of the family fortunes when death duties have to be paid to Bethany Lawrence, the Queen of Thieves, whose word is now law in the nearby town of Breakwater. It's clear at this point that All the Murmuring Bones isn't taking place, quite, in our world. The geography is vague and this is a society not of nations but of scattered communities, little towns and villages and isolated demesnes like Hob's Hollow. The atmosphere is pre industrial, perhaps mid 18th century in development. It resembles, in other words, in social terms the typical fairy story and as in a fairy story, magic and monsters are also accepted and expected (watch out for corpsewights on the marshes) though it seems efforts are afoot on the part of the Church to suppress both. The O'Malley family's relationship with the Church is therefore strained: their power and wealth came from some sort of bargain with the powers of the sea, and in the years of their pomp they scorned the 'god-hounds' as they scorned any other authority.

Miren has been brought up to inherit the O'Malley trade of shipping, and Óisín has taught her all he can, even though the family fortunes are waning and they have only two vessels remaining. Following Óisín's death, however, Miren faces a future where - at the mercy of Aoife's plotting - she is very much subject to other powers, with debts called in on all sides. These include debts which the family has neglected to pay to the sea powers, and debts in money to creepy Cousin Aidan. With hints in the book of a formerly matriarchal family now ruled by its men, Miren seems to be powerless, friendless and unprotected in a very cold world. 

It's difficult to convey just how rich Slatter's worldbuilding is in this book. The reality of Miren's plight is heightened by the fantastical background, featuring a sinister midnight assassins' market, a dazzling town theatre and a troupe of travelling actors. Everywhere are references to events, stories, places and people (such as Bethany Lawrence) which do not feature in the main narrative but which are equally, well developed, well rounded features of this world about whom stories could be told. Miren herself is a rich and complex character, who spends much of her time trying to understand - to understand others, including her grandmother and deceased parents, and her cousin, to understand the wider world and her family's precarious situation, and to understand herself. 

Fleeing what seems an intolerable situation, heading for a mysterious house called "Blackwater" based on a reference in an old letter which Óisín had kept hidden, Merin fears both danger pursuing her and an unknown countryside ahead. That countryside contains both everyday and supernatural risks, both of which she approaches with the cool head and courage of a fairytale hero. The story is, though, brutally realistic about the risks she will face, Slatter pitching the tone in just the right place between the out and out fantastic and the mundane - and giving Merin very human reactions (for instance, when has to decide to take a life) rather than too much fairytale self-assurance.

I won't say precisely exactly what awaits Merin when she reaches Blackwater, another house that both echoes and contradicts Hob's Hollow, or what she was seeking there. Either would be too spoilery. But the climax of the book does recapitulate - indeed take to a new level - the themes of the earlier part: the intrusion of patriarchy, the basic reality of magic at different levels and the need to take account of it while retaining one's integrity, the importance of family (whether that's birth or found family).

This is an extraordinary, engaging story from Angela Slatter. At times it feels like a peep behind the curtain in a world of magic and fantasy, at others a deeply empathetic coming of age story for a young woman who may begin with some illusions but soon has to put them aside. Really, it's both those things, and so much more. I love to see a fantasy like this which isn't about the fate of the world, the rise and fall of emperors and armies, but which focusses on believable people who - even in a fantastic world - suffer from the same dilemmas, temptations and frailties as anyone else. 

I would, as you may have guessed, strongly recommend All the Murmuring Bones as the answer to your dark gothic twisted fairytale needs (and don't we all have those right now?)

For more information about the book, look at all the reviews scheduled on the tour poster! or pop over to the Titan website here.

You can buy the book from your local bookshop, if they're open for click and collect, or online from or Hive books, from Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

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