It was the smile of a man who found nothing funny and everything amusing.

I knew three things about The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher going in: that T. Kingfisher is a pen name of multiple-award-winning children’s/comics author Ursula Vernon; that it had been released earlier in the year but now there is a newly edited version published by 47North coming out on November 24; and that it is a retelling of Bluebeard.

Rhea is 15 years old and engaged to marry rich Lord Crevan. She is a simple milliner’s daughter, powerless, poor ,and not exactly pretty. “Why me,” she wonders when she is told she has a fiance, “surely this is a mistake.” Her mother, instead of appeasing her doubts with platitudes, simply says: “I don’t know.”

That was the first sign.

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Because here is the thing about rich lords wanting to marry beneath their station: you can’t say no to them. You don’t have the power to do so. No one will help you, not the mayor who is friends with him, nor other powerful people who owe him, and if you rage, engage, or challenge a Rich Lord (who also happens to be a wizard), those you love are the ones to suffer.

And so, when Lord Crevan tells Rhea she is to go and visit him and stay overnight, she has no choice but to go. 

The magic-laden road to his house is the second sign.

The third sign that Lord Crevan is not what he looks like and that his proposal is dangerous to Rhea’s very life is when she meets his other wives.

There is nothing I love more than to be taken by surprise by a story that is so unexpectedly great like this one is. And surprise me it did, in many ways:

This is a retelling of Bluebeard, yes. But not quite how you would expect it. Unlike the original Bluebeard, most of his other wives are still alive—sort of. But Lord Crevan has taken something from each and every one of them. One by one, Rhea meets the others—the Scarecrow Wife, the Clock Wife—and those meetings are sad, horrifying, and bloody. Rhea knows that he will take something from her as soon as they are wedded. The clock is ticking – tick, tock, scream, shake, tick, tock. Unlike the original, no wife is blamed for what happens to them in any shape or form. And curiosity will save this cat.

This is really, really dark. But also hilariously funny. WhatLord Crevan does to his wives is unspeakably evil and so horrifying it made me sick. It also makes Rhea sick but she finds succour in the friendship with the other wives and also in herself and her own sense of humor. It’s a heady balance.  

Female friendship and empowerment, gender and class critique are the central focus of the novel. Rhea wants to save herself, yes. But it’s her moving bond with the other wives and her family that motivates her to find answers. Similarly, the story very clearly notes the disparate power dynamics among Lord Crevan and his wives in different ways—most of them possible because of structural sexism.   

There is an awesome, helpful hedgehog who claims to be ordinary. But normal hedgehogs don’t communicate, do they. I will just leave this tasty morsel here.

The writing. It is superb. Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher, where have you been all my life. 

In Book Smugglerish: 8 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.