She checked her neck again, feeling for the clasp. She searched the front of her tunic, down her trouser legs, all the way to her shoes. Then she felt her neck again.
But she was not mistaken. There was no sign of the locket. It was gone.
It matters, Sofia. Keep it safe, always.
A Secret of Birds and Bone is set in an alternate version of the city of Siena, in Renaissance Italy. Sofia, her brother Ermin, her mother and their pet crow, Corvith, live a quiet and pleasant life just outside the city, growing their own food, drawing fresh water from the well, and enjoying their freedom. Sofia’s mother is the greatest bone builder in Italy, with the ability to craft items from bone; from strong structures like the house they live in, to beautiful and fine filigree.
But then on Sofia’s twelfth birthday, Mamma is taken by the city guard, and Sofia and Ermin are packed off to an orphanage in the city. The orphanage is not what it seems though, and it’s not long before Sofia and Ermin have escaped with their new friend Ghino, hot on the trail of their mother, some missing children, and a mystery that has enveloped the city for twenty years…
The first thing I noticed when flicking through the book is the beautiful design of it, courtesy of illustrator Helen Crawford-White. The front cover is a captivating combination of reds, blues and purples, and the hardcover underneath the dust jacket (yes, I know they’re important but I always like to see) is gorgeously etched with three golden birds. The pages inside are bordered with different patterns throughout, which give the book a stylish and slightly otherworldly feel – not over the top, but enough to echo the slightly fantastical nature of the world it’s set in.
Hargrave drops you immediately into the unusual life that Sofia lives, as you wake up with her in the “bone house” her mother built for them. This first chapter perfectly sets up their family dynamic, and the descriptions of the people and places are honestly delightful. Following this, you get a brief flashback to the year before, setting up the context for what happens next, before being thrown into the action.
Sofia and Ermin are perfectly balanced between being children and being engaging protagonists. Ermin is the younger, but at times seems more sensible, possibly because Sofia is the character that we actively follow, so you hear all of her internal worries and concerns. But both are brave, while also finding themselves being buffeted along by the situation; for example, adults come to take them to the orphanage and there’s not a lot they, as children, can do. And although a crow may seem like an odd choice, their love and care for Corvith is no different to any other childhood pet.
Their mother is caring and strong, but is also shown to be flawed in a truly understandable way. The antagonists (sorry for being vague, but I don’t want to give anything away!) are honestly chilling in both their demeanours and their motivations. And Ghino, who Sofia and Ermin meet upon their escape, is cautious and somewhat frustrating, which makes perfect sense once you learn of his circumstances.
The way Hargrave describes the locations is truly enchanting, from the peacefulness of the monastery and the tight streets of Siena, to the twisting tunnels beneath the city and the towering spires of the Cathedral. Each place has its own atmospheric character that she weaves together to create a world that is not exactly magical, and yet is fantastical in a way unlike our own.
The story itself immediately draws you in as you wind your way with Sofia and Ermin through mystery after mystery that eventually coalesces into a grand conspiracy (though not necessarily in the way you might expect). Even in the quieter moments, things feel constantly on edge, but in a way that drives the story forward rather than feeling forced.
One of the interesting aspects of the story is the smallpox plague that had swept through the city years before, the reason for their family’s isolation. Although the disease has passed, the effects are still felt amongst the populace. This feels especially poignant for being written in 2020, while the Covid-19 virus was rippling through the world (and still is at the time of writing this review).
The book is utterly compelling, urging you to keep reading to work out the mystery and find out what happens next. It’s about the importance of family and protecting those who matter to us, and in doing what’s right even when it’s difficult. And it’s also about the lengths that people will go to for what they believe in, whether those beliefs are good or bad.
We’d definitely recommend it for those who enjoy gripping tales of fantasy and mystery, and those who are comfortable with some slightly darker themes (the book is still suitable for older primary school readers however). Another excellent title to add to Hargrave’s catalogue, and your own collection!
If you’re in the mood for more fantastical stories, you can check out some of our other reviews here.