Mistress Charm is a witch, maybe, and a madam certainly. She presides over Orchard House, a brothel/social club catering to Borengard’s most wealthy and powerful. The eponymous orchard is filled with bone trees, which fruit can be animated into living creatures. Mistress Charm is also mistress to the Emperor, who visits every Tuesday. When the Emperor is poisoned, he charges Charm with finding (and killing) those responsible for his death.
This book is so densely plotted and detailed that it took me quite a while to figure out what was going on, and would likely reward a second read. There is psychic magic, court intrigue, murder mystery, and plots-within-plots. And layered within the mystery is a very nuanced exploration of trauma, memory, resilience, power dynamics, and the roles of women within a patriarchy. The horrors of war get a lot of space here, too.
Ultimately, the book rests entirely on Charm’s shoulders, so it’s a good thing she is a strong and sympathetic character – even when she’s not entirely likeable. Charm is a survivor, and sometimes survivors have to make hard, impossible choices. “To change any of this, we need to live.”
The prose is beautiful and the world-building complex, even if the plot was sometimes a bit hard to follow. The characters are interesting, and finely drawn. The world-building is epic in scope, and different enough to stand well out from the fantasy field. Also one of the most stunning covers I’ve seen this year. I’ll be very interested to see if the author revisits this world in another book.