A Secret of Birds and Bone draws the reader in from the moment the first page is turned. Like chess, books can be split into three parts: opening, middlegame and endgame. Like players, authors can specialise in any one of the three. Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a grandmaster of the opening. The way she develops her pieces and sets up future moves is skilful; an exchange here, a capture there, a well-placed sacrifice and the reader finds themselves without a hope of escape when the story has barely begun.
The depth and clarity with which she crafts her worlds is a feat that was particularly apparent in her marvellous The Way Past Winter, where the first phrases, a description of a darkly enchanted cold, leaves frost crystallised on the pages. However, with its subtle allusions to a universe beyond, behind and beneath its written words, A Secret of Bird and Bone surpasses even that.
The first sentence: ‘In the grounds of a ruined monastery, on the outskirts of Siena, a girl awoke in a charnel house,’ immediately sets the macabre tone, entwining reality with the fantasy of fairy tales. Then before the first chapter has run its course, off-the-cuff world-building – with phrases such as ‘when the monks lived here’ to describe the characters’ home and ‘there were rumours from Central Asia of a man who crafted carts and boats’ when referring to the protagonist’s mother’s magical ability of ‘bone binding’ – has filled the air with the thick, rich mustiness of untold stories.
Her fifth book for children, A Secret of Birds and Bone must cement Hargrave’s reputation as one of the most exciting voices in children’s literature today. It tells the story of Sofia, the latest daughter in a long line of ‘bone binders’, craftsmen who can fashion beautiful and intricate objects out of bone and then mystically fuse them together. These creations are no longer ghoulish Frankenstein pieces, carcasses glued together, but new, complete and seamless wholes. The symbolism of the bones and the stories, lives, even souls, held in their marrow gives the tale great weight.
Sofia is enamoured with what she sees as the power and legend of her mother. However, this love and admiration is tested when, after a long period secluded in her workshop fashioning a final and secret project, her mother disappears on the morning of Sofia’s twelfth birthday. The search for her takes Sofia and her brother Ermin to the heart and catacombs of the small-pox ridden city from which their mother had banned them. The ensuing adventure is fast, frantic, unexpected and glorious.
This latest offering is rich with links to Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights, infused as it is with the same kind of gritty, textured magic. The reflections of His Dark Materials go beyond surface similarities (such as both having a character called Serafina, children vanishing in a ‘gobbleresque’ fashion, some daemon-like animals and a world steeped in fictionalised Catholicism) to more thematic qualities. Both chart the coming of age of a young girl, slipping into womanhood with unwanted (and unknown) destiny upon her shoulders. Both also deal with the uncovering of family secrets and the realisation that one’s parents are human and thus flawed. This is actually one of the great strengths of the story, Sofia is a character in the world but is not the centre of it. Each of the other antagonists and protagonists feels fully fleshed-out and I suspect the book would be just as intriguing from any of their perspectives.
As we have come to expect from Hargrave, the writing is effortless in its charm and beauty. The only criticism I could draw from the book is that the end feels sudden compared to how the rest of the book unfurled so satisfyingly. However, I am fairly sure I only feel this because I didn’t want it to end at all!
This book is perfect for UKS2, particularly year six, and would be a great read for children who have enjoyed the works of either Pullman or Sophie Anderson. It’s a rare tome that I was recommending to people even before I even finished it but that just shows how confident I am in the imagination and pen strokes of this writer. I have no hesitation in saying that A Secret of Birds and Bone deserves a place not just on every awards list but on every bookshelf.
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