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The Bone Orchard by Sara A. Mueller – ARC Review!

Charm is a witch, and she is alone. The last of a line of conquered necromantic workers, now confined within the yard of regrown bone trees at Orchard House, and the secrets of their marrow.

Charm is a prisoner, and a survivor. Charm tends the trees and their clattering fruit for the sake of her children, painstakingly grown and regrown with its fruit: Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain.

Charm is a whore, and a madam. The wealthy and powerful of Borenguard come to her house to buy time with the girls who aren’t real.

Except on Tuesdays, which is when the Emperor himself lays claim to his mistress, Charm herself.

now—Charm is also the only person who can keep an empire together, as the Emperor summons her to his deathbed, and charges her with choosing which of his awful, faithless sons will carry on the empire—by discovering which one is responsible for his own murder.

If she does this last thing, she will finally have what has been denied her since the fall of Inshil—her freedom. But she will also be betraying the ghosts past and present that live on within her heart.

Charm must choose. Her dead Emperor’s will or the whispers of her own ghosts. Justice for the empire or her own revenge.

I received a copy of this book for review & can confirm all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Charm is many things; a witch, a whore, a businesswoman, a rebel, but she is also not entirely herself. She stays in Orchard house, overlooking her bone ghosts Pain, Pride, Justice, Shame & Desire, girls not entirely real but the elite of Borenguard pay healthily to spend time with them nonetheless. All except Charm who is the Emperor’s alone. But when the Emperor dies under suspicious circumstances, Charm is the only one with the ability to find out which of his sons planned his murder and avenge him. If she does this she will finally have her freedom, but she will also be denying the parts of herself she thought lost, and soon she will have to choose between saving the parts of herself and avenging the murder of the Emperor.

I’m going to start off by apologising for how disjointed this review will be. There was so much about this book that I loved, the magic system, the characters, the political machinations as well as the themes that are dealt with, and as separate parts these were all excellently done, however as whole I just felt there was a little too much going on, not quite enough explanation, and because of that I really struggled to invest myself in the story.

As usual I’ll start with the characters and Charm is certainly one of the most unique characters I’ve come across. The last in a long line of necromancers, she was taken from her Kingdom and put to work for the Emperor where she created her ‘children’ out of Bone’s grown in her Orchard. She is controlled by the Mindlock in her head, something that all ‘psychic’ citizens must have to ensure the safety of themselves as well as others, but after the Emperor eases her lock to let her look for his killer Charm starts to unravel, she starts to have hints of things, events, feelings that she doesn’t remember happening. She’s an incredibly intricate and unique character for reasons that I can’t really go into because of spoilers, but she’s incredibly strong willed and protective of the girls she has created, and the she knows how to play people, be they low or highborn, making sure she is kept up to date on all the politics and inner workings of the city.

Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride, and Pain are all as unique as their names would suggest, and they each bear their own scars, both physically and mentally. Were never 100% sure how these women came to be, how they were created, where their personalities come from, and this is one of the mysteries weaving through the plot that I was wholly invested in. With this being part political fantasy as well there is a large cast of political players from Princes, to members of parliament and they all play an integral part in the story. Mueller drops hints throughout the book to the multiple mysteries we are dealing with, but it isn’t until you get to the big reveal that you realise just how impressive her foreshadowing was, and how integral our characters are to the overall story.

It did take me a hot minute to get my head around the magic system that Mueller created. There isn’t really any easing into it, it’s more a ‘learn as you go along’ which is one of the reasons why I didn’t feel 100% invested in the story. But it was definitely worth the wait, and once I got my head round it I just thrived for more knowledge. It’s extremely intricate, with the country having to deal with people who have psychic powers who previously had gone mad, they now, thanks to stealing the technology, have mindlocks, instruments that are inserted into the psychics brain, controlling not only their powers, but their thoughts, actions and even memories. Charm herself is a necromancer, but also able to read people though physical touch, something that comes in incredibly useful when searching for the Emperor’s killer.

The Bone Orchard is an incredibly dark book, dealing with some strong themes such as rape (off page) as well as physical/mental abuse & the treatment of sex workers to name a few. It’s a book that highlights the depravity of humanity instead of hiding it, and shows the fragility of our minds and bodies, but also the strength we can show when the need arises. There’s a lot of parts of this book that I loved, and really moved me, that I can’t mention because they contain spoilers, but the dark atmosphere of the story and the scheming, tenacity and resilience of the characters was one of the reasons I loved it so much, and definitely one of the reasons I continued reading, even when I felt like I was in over my head.

There’s multiple mysteries, as well as story lines weaving through The Bone Orchard and I think, because there were so many, I found myself caring more about some than others. This took me out of the book a little, and because of the intricacy of everything that’s included I just felt a little overwhelmed in parts. That’s not to say that the mysteries weren’t woven well, in fact the question of who exactly the women were, how they were made, where they came from was one that had me completely hooked throughout the story and the one that, once answered, packed one hell of an emotional punch. While there is a little romance, this is more a story about ourselves, and the parts we like to hide from, the ones we would rather live without, but the parts that we wouldn’t be able to truly live without.

As a whole, I found this book packed a little too much punch, and definitely felt overwhelmed in parts. However, all of the separate parts, the mysteries, the magic system, the characters were all expertly done, and I was certainly glad that I stuck with the book, even when I didn’t truly understand what was happening. It’s certainly a slow burner, but the darkness it exudes was just too enticing to pass up & I will certainly be eager to see what the author brings out next.

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