Amber looks at her sleeping sister Maya and sees a thousand phantom faces. Maya is a formwanderer, a “mirror of want” – a human specially engineered so that anyone who looks at her sees her as whatever they want to see, even if they’re not aware of what that is. Formwanderers have a difficult existence – there are reports of them killing people because their observers unwittingly desire it – but perhaps Maya’s greatest problem is that she doesn’t know what to be for her self.
When their parents announce that they have found jobs for the sisters that will split them up, Amber and Maya flee their home city of Paradon to a coastal village. They take up refuge in an abandoned cottage, where Amber finds a strange recipe book, cooking utensils made of bone, and cupboards full of ingredients. Discovering that more food is regularly left outside the front door, Amber sets about trying out some recipes, unaware of the effects they have on the outside world. Meanwhile, the villagers leave their tithe of goods out for the witch Old Kelp; but one child, Kip, is about to stumble across a secret.
Cooking With Bones is, quite simply, one of the best books I have read this year. Its vision is so confident and complete, its language a joy. One has the sense that Paradon houses endless stories waiting to be told – Amber’s new job at the Tear Lab, “where sadness is measured”, is just one tantalising detail – but they are not to be told here, as the city is swiftly left behind. This is the depth of texture with which Jess Richards imbues her novel’s world, and it is exhilarating to read. The recipes dotted throughout the text also evoke a real sense of magic:
“Sieve together the cornflour and sand, thinking of sand clocks, of life cycles, of beginnings and endings, of cliffs crumbling to rocks to stones to sand, and footprints leading along an inevitable path.”
As for the story, it strikes me most of all as a tale of growing up. The three young protagonists are all, in their own ways, being held back: Maya is so used to (literally) existing for other people that she can’t work out what she wants; Amber doesn’t really know what she wants either, but feels that primal want all the same; Kip just wishes to be Kip, though others place obstacles in the way. All will find some sort of resolution, though a happy ending is not guaranteed.
Cooking With Bones is a novel that draws you so completely into its world that it is hard to step out again. Whilst you’re there, it is a delight. Now I need to go back and read Richards’ debut, Snake Ropes; and you should definitely read this book.
Any Cop? Without doubt. As far as I’m concerned, with this book, Jess Richards has established herself as an important new voice in British fantastic literature.