No matter if gothic fantasy is your genre of choice, or if you are keen to dip you toes into this fantastical world for the first time, you will be delighted and amazed by A.G. Slatter’s All the Murmuring Bones (Titan Books 2021). This is a wonderfully creepy, disturbing and magical fairy-tale that begins very much in the realm of reality but gradually descends seamlessly into a completely different world.
Miren O’Malley’s family – think crumbling mansion on the hill overlooking a treacherous sea – have lived in comfortable wealth for years because of a deal struck with the merfolk – the safety of their trading ships and the prosperity of their land in return for one child of each generation. But at the opening of the novel, unable for some time to keep their end of the bargain, the family is in dire financial straits. Miren’s scheming grandmother, Aoife, is determined to forge a bond that will see their debts excused and the family’s fortune and good standing restored. But it becomes apparent that this will come at the cost of Miren’s freedom. And while it is initially easy to paint Aoife as the villain, as the complexities of the plot unravel, it is obvious that this family has long been haunted by that long-ago deal, and that every generation has endured a grim struggle to hold close the family secrets and keep the bloodline strong, and everyone has had to make difficult decisions about what they are willing to sacrifice.
This is a story about strong women and greedy, ambitious men who try to control them. It is also a powerful tale of magic, witches, spells, legends, mer, kelpies and other mythical creatures. But while it is intimately threaded through with these eerie elements, the main narrative reads very much as a traditional story of a family in pecuniary desperation, an enigmatic young woman on a quest to discover her history, mercenary relatives arriving from out of the woodwork, arranged marriages of convenience, mysterious servants, and the dynamics between masters and the peasant-folk that serve them. Exploring themes of betrayal, sacrifice, loyalty, family, moral debt, promises, heartache and desire, the book is punctuated by the inclusion of independent fairy-tales and myths, as told by the characters, that simultaneously add rich layers to the depth of gothic suspense and also serve to explain some of the chilling background.
It is completely enthralling, and I was so engrossed that I carried the book around with me and read a few pages in every spare minute I had. As the story unfolds, and the tension increases, the plot becomes more and more complicated, and by the time the ending arrives, the air is practically crackling with friction. Miren’s character is believable and compelling, and while she is presented as a woman seemingly with few choices and under the control of others, she nevertheless manages to act with agency and strength. The last few paragraphs are particularly lovely.
This genre is not normally one I gravitate towards but if I was going to choose a five-star example of a gothic fairy-tale, this would be the one I would recommend; it is charming and spellbinding, and immerses the reader into an imagined world not soon forgotten.