The Bone Snatcher
by Charlotte Salter
Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin), 2017
Middle Grade (13 and up)
Isa Bancewicz’s cover art really sets the mood for this book. Sophie Seacove, a girl with white hair, is sold by her parents. Sea Fever is epidemic, more people are becoming deathly afraid of sea monsters each day. But it is understandable, because the ocean is indeed filled with chthonic beasts… but now there is a New Continent, recently discovered, that everyone is clamoring to get a ticket for. That’s where Sophie’s parents went, leaving her behind, turning the payment for tickets. And Sophie’s path back to the mainland is far below the tides for another full year.
It is Sophie’s job to gather bones from the catacombs below a great meandering mansion twice a day and throw them to the sea creatures to prevent them from tearing the house apart. She is treated terribly by the people who live there, The Battleship, widow of the late inventor Laurel, and their twin sons, Ralph and Gail, insanely chaotic, and vicious, violent to the point that Sophie fears for her life. And with good reason. Other servants have disappeared before her.
The family receives a visit from Cartwright, now a soldier of 14, and larger than life. He rides in atop a huge and powerful steed named Manic, and sets the chaotic twins in their place. If only for a moment. Ralph and Gail hate Cartwright. He does seem rather magnificent, if somewhat evil. And he is searching for something called The Monster Box.
“Ralph and Gail are little monsters, but they’re not capable of killing anyone. Can you actually see them doing it? They play with their food, for crying out loud.”
“I think they’re worse than that,” she said. “I think they’re only pretending.”
Sophie is trained by a servant named Scree, a great cook who remembers Laurel and his ingenious inventions fondly. She herself is a storyteller, and the book is peppered with shorts recited by her that reflect on the tale at large.
Between rusting mechanical contraptions and wandering in a drowning, decaying world, Sophie makes a failed escape attempt that leaves burning tentacle marks on her skin, she escapes drowning in a glowfish pond at the bottom of a chasm in caverns underground, and she almost falls from a clock tower (with a steampunk automaton in the likeness of its creator, Laurel). Then she stabs Cartwright in the arm with scissors.
One day Cartwright offers Sophie tickets to the New Continent for helping him to find The Monster Box. Apparently he has done this before, Sophie discovers, and she suspects the disappearances of her predecessors was no accident. She does not trust Cartwright at all. But in another of the twins’ twisted ruses that play with Sophie’s sanity, they make her burn the two keys to her freedom as she darts through a raging fire to escape their wicked scheming. Then Scree disappears, likely fed to monsters by the twins, whose mother is even afraid of them.
The main character shows a lack of concern for being separated from her parents, and although motivated by the tickets to help find The Monster Box, which is said to hold a cure for Sea Fever, I didn’t feel the desperation she might have had to get free from the horrid island and its murderous inhabitants. But then, that is part of the stark grimness of the book; she really has no hope. Escape to where? The parents who abandoned her are gone. The author hints at a possible romance with Cartwright, but we are never really sure of his sanity. Nonetheless, in the absence of all hope, she perseveres.
Her feet were hanging just above the water when a jellyfish rose and spread out beneath her. It was huge and pale blue, and she could see its internal organs contracting and expanding, its huge beating heart and its packed-up stomach writhing. She knew that if she touched it she’d be killed.
I loved the inescapable dreariness of the story, though some may find it oppressive. The strong female lead acts as a catalyst to end a cycle of despair on the island that began with a simple act of love. In the end Sophie does find her ticket to happiness and a reason to return to the mainland… after she fights her way through battle with behemoth sea monsters on a Lovecraftian scale!
The Bone Snatcher is truly amazing, horrific fun. I am blown away. It has the perfect mix of dank dread, sarcasm, and mystery. I finished reading it before I noticed how late it had got. Highly recommended as a mighty girl book club read!