Book Review: A Secret of Birds and Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

“This particular magic was bone-bound, earth-made, rule-tangled. So when a widow brought her husband’s rib to become a broach worn over her heart, she would be comforted in her weeping by the double beat of a ghostly pulse worn against her chest”

Why is every single one of Kiran’s books the most beautiful book you have ever seen? Shout out to Helen Crawford-White for this stunner, which is absolutely my favourite one yet.

A Secret of Birds and Bone is the story of Sofia and her family: her mother, her brother Ermin and their pet crow, Corvith (excuse me, yes, I would like a pet crow, thank you kind sir). They live in historical Siena at a time when the plague has ravaged their town and there is no cure for those affected. Sofia’s mother is rumoured to have a gift for healing, which puts her in something of a dangerous position as their story progresses.

She is also an ossuarist (someone who makes things with bone), and her particular brand of this bone craft involves invoking something of the spirit of the person whose bone she crafts, so it can bring comfort to those left behind. This crafting and the scope of her work was one of the things I loved most about this book. Who wouldn’t want something comforting with the essence of their lost loved ones? She has crafted the entire house they live in (side note, I will also take one of these houses, thank you), and is working on a series of boxes for the Duchessa, and she is due to deliver the last of these on Sofia’s birthday. Before she leaves for the town, she gifts her daughter a beautiful bone necklace, telling her that it is important and she must keep it safe. Then everything goes awry: she is arrested and the children are taken to the local convent orphanage.

The convent orphanage is exactly as awful as it sounds; Sister Rosa seems sickeningly sweet, but the children are scared, and they keep disappearing in the night -a mystery that kept me guessing for most of the book. There is a boy in the walls (Ghino) who keeps stealing things and not getting caught. The Duschessa herself is a mysterious but very dark presence throughout the book and I was terrified to meet her.

Most of the book focuses on Sofia and Ermin trying to find their mother. I loved their sibling relationship; they are very different people but they work well together and they complement each other well. Sofia is smart for her age and very grown up. She will do anything to protect Ermin. I loved seeing her taking the high road when presented with a difficult choice, and the choices she makes. She really is the most precious girl. She is determined to help her Mamma and supports her, even when she discovers her mistakes. There is a brilliant twist in the book and, all things considered, Sofia takes it well. I loved what it meant for Sofia and it gave me a very different perspective on her mum. I would love to come back to this family a little way in the future and see how things are working out for them.

I love Kiran’s writing. It is beautifully descriptive and evocative, and it brings you wholly into her world. You can picture the little bone house, smell the lavender oil her mother makes and wears. I can always get lost in Kiran’s books and forget the world around me, something that was very needed at the time I read this book.

A Secret of Birds and Bone is another stunning book from Kiran. It is filled with beautiful messages and hope that the next generation will do much better than the one that came before it.

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