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Review: A Secret of Birds and Bone

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

New book from Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of 'A Girl of Ink and Stars'.

"In the grounds of a ruined monestary, on the outskirts of Siena, a girl awoke in a charnel house."

'A Secret of Birds and Bone' by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a fantastic, atmospheric tale told expertly by a talented writer. In the opening chapter, we meet Sofia, who lives in a house made of bone, built in the olive grove of an abandoned monastery. This captivating premise had me hooked in straight away! Sofia's mother is a bone-binder of prodigious talent, creating delicate, intricate and wondrous objects out of bone that people from far and wide used to come and commission her to make. However, when we meet Sofia on the morning of her twelfth birthday, Mamma has only accepted one commission in the last year.

Siena has been ravaged by smallpox and Sofia's younger brother Ermin has been lucky to recover from it. Mamma has special healing talents that meant he not only lived, but has none of the scarring associated with smallpox survivors. The city also has a water shortage, causing even further sickness and death. Mamma, Sofia, Ermin and their crow, Corvith, have been kept safe by their distance from the city and their access to the clean water of an underground river that feeds the well on the monestary grounds.

When Ermin recovered from the smallpox, Mamma stopped taking commissions in order to keep them safe, until a year ago, when Sofia overheard a strange visitor ordering Mamma to build something. Ever since, Mamma has been locking herself away in her workshop and working all hours. On the morning of Sofia's birthday, Mamma promises that she will spend the day with Sofia instead of working, but first she has to visit someone in Siena. She gives Sofia her birthday present - a delicately carved replica of the Siena cathedral tower hung on a necklace - and tells her that when she returns, she has a secret she will share. But, of course, after dropping such a tantalising bomb-shell, Mamma doesn't return!

After witnessing a shocking scene in Siena, Sofia and Ermin are taken to an orphanage by the mysterious Sister Rosa, where things are not quite what they seem. Children disappear overnight and Sofia is told that those children are the 'lucky ones' who have been adopted, but, when she decides not to drink the bedtime milk one night, she witnesses what really happens and plots their escape. There follows an adventure through the underground caverns of Siena, solving riddles and booby-traps as they flee the orphanage and try to discover what has happened to their mother and find out about the secret she was keeping. The action and the mysteries of Mamma's disappearance, the strange occurances at the orphanage and the family secret make this a real page turner!

Sofia and Ermin are good personality counterpoints to each other, with Sofia being extremely adventurous, while Ermin, having had a recent brush with death, is more cautious and reluctant. They also encounter a child who leads them through the caverns below the city, and who provides us with a glimpse of what has happened to those children less fortunate than Sofia and Ermin when the smallpox came. The additional plot element of an epidemic and the effects of it on a family and the surrounding society are, sadly, very familiar, but would provide a good discussion stimulus about the epidemics and pandemics of history and how they are all eventually overcome. Sofia also encounters the frustration of stereotypical gender roles being imposed at the orphanage, which, being the daughter of a bone-binder who has taught her to use tools and build things, is something she is unused to. This also provides us with a good talking point regarding traditional gender roles and how to tackle discrimination.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave has got some serious writing chops and I was in awe of her beautiful prose and imaginative storytelling. This book is full of gothic and fairy tale imagery (which is always a bonus for me!), such as soldiers with magpies that are very menacing and spy on the children from the sky. Siena, with its underground caverns, cathedral and olive groves, adds to the enigmatic atmosphere and Mamma's job as a bone-binder enhances the fantasy element. I have seen pictures of entire chapels made out of bone, so it is a really intriguing premise on which to build a story.

The hardback edition is just stunning, with cover art by Helen Crawford-White, hidden foiled elements under the dust jacket and every single page illustrated, which just adds to the general joy of reading this fabulous book. I do like the publisher, Chicken House Books - they seems to pick really intriguing authors and market everything extremely well. They host an annual competition each year looking for new children's authors and they are always worth reading, so do keep an eye out for their books! 'A Secret of Birds and Bone' holds true to their high standards. It's a fabulously magical read, which will appeal to fans of authors such as Sophie Anderson and Abi Elphinstone. It would make a fabulous book for story time or a book club and provides some excellent opportunities for research and creative writing. I would love to read more about this world and find out where the magpies came from and how Sofia's mother became a bone-binder and I think these would make good story seeds for children. A highly recommended read!

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