By: A.G. Slatter
Release Date: April 8, 2021
Publisher: Titan Books
Received From: Publisher
(All reviews are our own, honest opinions.)
The newest novel by A.G. Slatter, All the Murmuring Bones, is a tale that spans a wide gamut of genres and themes neatly packed into a pretty, blue cover whose curling motif hints at the churning ocean waves that permeate the tale. Slatter is no stranger to fiction, with several other books already under her belt, such as Vigil and Corpselight, as well as compilations of her short fiction. She is also quite the decorated author, with a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, a Ditmar, six Aurealis Awards, and an Australian Shadows Award.
The blurb for All the Murmuring Bones promises a tale of old deals long broken, a plethora of family secrets, and the merfolk. While all of this does paint the beginnings of Slatter’s latest work, the blurb doesn’t quite give the whole shape of the novel and might lead some potential readers astray. The book is very gothic in nature, having all the gray, stormy atmosphere, family secrets, and huge, empty manors that are hallmarks of the genre. Mysteries abound, with murder and the supernatural being common themes as well. However, this isn’t about mermaids in quite the way some readers might be hoping for. Yes, they make appearances, but it isn’t really a story about mermaids. This is much more of a historical fantasy and gothic novel in which they are featured.
The story begins as a very slow, winding tale about the O’Malley family, what little of them there are left. The once proud family line is reduced to a grandmother and the protagonist, Miren O’Malley. Miren is to be married off for the betterment of the failing family fortunes, a common theme for those who read gothic or historical fiction, to which she takes umbrage with. Her husband to be is an abusive cousin she wants absolutely nothing to do with. This makes up much of the first half of the novel, focusing more on the mundane issues of family secrets, troubled times, and attempting to escape a fate seemingly already laid out. It winds in the myths, histories, and stories of the O’Malley family in with ease. It revels in lingering amid the stories of the past and the tales that speak of magic. It’s a tale that begs you linger in the dusty corridors and on the cliffs in the cold sea air.
Until the second half, that is, where the pacing, tone, and even some themes shift rather dramatically. The second half of the novel is very fast pace in comparison to the first half, so much so that it was a jarring change. With the change of pace comes a lack of advancement of the plot. While a great deal happens rather quickly, much of it making for very fun reading, a certain amount isn’t of any great importance either to plot or character development, either. This is also where more of the mythical creatures come into play, weaving in and out of scenes as they spin their own tales.
Myths and legends are an important theme in the novel. However, they aren’t always used to the best of their ability. The ancient tales of the O’Malley family and their encounters with mermaids and other mythological beings are a real highlight of the story, but these creatures use in the actual tale is oddly placed. The vast majority are more throwaway characters than anything else. While their scenes were fun and some of the most memorable within the novel, they also added little to the plot, character development, or backstory.
In much the same fashion as the usage of mythical creatures, magic is also oddly approached in some regards. This is a fantasy book in many ways, not simply a gothic novel where the unexplained lurks within the dusty, unused hallways of ancient manors and rundown villages. Mythical creatures, spells, and hexes are weaved throughout the tale, plain as day, and treated as very real staples within the world. However, Miren repeatedly says that not all the old stories in the book passed down through the O’Malley family are true, and that she isn’t a real witch like her mother or other ancestors. Except every story we are told from this book is proven true (or at the very least never has any serious shadow of a doubt cast upon it) and Miren preforms some true magic. This removes the element of the unknown that made the beginning of the story so very intriguing and might disappoint those reading for that gothic, mysterious air.
Yet, the mysteries surrounding the Miren are interesting. What happened to her parents? What secrets does the ancient family estate hold? What sorts of things did her grandfather take to his grave with him? These beg answers, and keep us reading.
The stories many plots wrap up quickly and nearly simultaneously. Having an action-packed ending makes for an exciting climax to the tale, but we are not able to spend any great amount of time with each plot thread, as jumping from one to the next, which didn’t really leave much room for any of them to breathe. And, once the plot threads were tied up, that was it. There was but a page or two of wrap up before the novel’s conclusion.
In all, this is a good novel that differs vastly in pacing and tone. While both halves have many good qualities that will have readers begging for more, I can’t help but feel that they also might drive those same readers away as other sections of the story simply won’t be what they’re looking for. However, the gothic air, hidden secrets, and mysteries make All the Murmuring Bones a great atmospheric read for a rainy day. Slatter certainly has wonderful prose style, and I’d be interested to see what her other works have in store.