Tucked away behind a notorious house of ill repute, there is a garden where the trees are grown from bones and nourished by the darkest of secrets. The clattering, ghastly harvest is tended to by the women who live and work at Orchard House: Charm, the madam and her haunting, beautiful charges—Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain.
Except on Tuesdays, when the Emperor alone calls at Orchard House to see his personal concubine.
Until the day he summons Charm instead of the palace to charge her with his dying decree: choose which of his horrible sons will inherit the Empire—by discovering which one has been responsible for his murder. If she completes this final task, she will be freed from a life of bondage and servitude.
Torn between the dead Emperor’s will and the whispers of her own ghosts, Charm must choose: justice for an empire she hates or vengeance—at the cost of her own freedom.
Will she save an Empire—or save herself instead?
I had to put this book down once or twice and walk away from it for a minute so my heart rate could return to normal. It’s not necessarily that any aspect of the novel is frightening per se; gothic horror as a genre isn’t always about the easy scare or the jump scare but more often about the psychological implications at play. Perhaps the greatest Gothic novel of all time is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is useful knowledge in terms of background tone and feel. Gothic fiction runs into horror because of the suspenseful elements, the way the past bleeds through the narrative, and the threat of supernatural events. Supernatural could take on so many meanings in this regard, because what is considered supernatural is what goes beyond that world’s natural order. The world of The Bone Orchard is vaguely recognizable as an alternate history, but it is a world steeped in magic and lore. The way Mueller gives little bits of information piece by grudging piece leaves the reader often confused or with missing information, just like how many of the characters feel.
We switch between primary characters; Charm plays a prominent role and makes up the bulk of the narrative focus. But I’m also drawn to Pain, who has major parts to play throughout the course of the novel. Because we don’t know the whole backstory, each new piece of information given could be relevant to either Charm and her charges’ continued characterizations, or it could be a piece of information that solves the Emperor’s murder. There’s no way to know until the end. Suffice it to say, though, that nothing is unimportant.
There can be a small bit of jarring in the beginning as you’re getting used to the narrative style. Not quite first person, jumping between characters sometimes happens what feels like mid-thought, or will end on a reference that you would assume we would then get to see, but Mueller glosses over it. Those moments stand out to me in hindsight because they were often moments of foreshadowing or insight that felt off because I knew I was missing something, just not what.
The relationship between Charm and her charges is incredible. I don’t want to give too much away, but her charges are called boneghosts, and it’s well known in the land of Boren that Charm makes them. They aren’t human, but they’re made in her image. There’s a reason for that, and it’s painful and brilliant and gorgeous. Charm’s past is shrouded in secrecy, even from herself, and figuring out the truth could have disastrous consequences.
It’s a novel about the implications of control, both in the big picture and the individual. As we slowly learn the truth about Charm and the boneghosts, we have to think about what it means to be human, to be whole. When your trauma is so significant you can’t survive any other way, what lengths will you go to in order to stay alive?
I highly recommend reading this one. The writing style seems to be popular right now, and there is a wave of gothic horror novels coming. Here are some more titles to check out if you enjoyed this one: