book review: A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard

Saga Press, 2019

I was so sure I was going to love this short story collection—modernized mythology is a conceit that excites me—but ultimately found it pretty one-note and heavy-handed. This is a YA collection in adult clothing, and I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t edited with a young adult audience in mind (characters are all adults but feel like teenagers, and a few passing references to sex are clearly made to age it up; it doesn’t work). Anyway, it leaves me in this awkward place where I don’t like to criticize YA books for being YA (they just weren’t written for me, and that is a-okay!), but this book was explicitly marketed as adult and I did go into it expecting that it had been written for me so here we are.

I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to get on with this from the author’s forward, which ends with the words: ‘Turn the page. I have miracles to offer you.’ If that isn’t the most self-aggrandizing way to begin a book, I don’t know what is. I was just at odds with Kat Howard’s style prose style the whole time, with lines like that as well as ‘There had been a woman, Madeleine, he thought her name was, who smelled of paper and stories.’

This whole collection can pretty much be summed up in this line, from the story The Green Knight’s Wife (hey, I like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, maybe that story will finally be the one for me… never mind):

He feels more comfortable in a place that is like him: forest, secret, overgrown.
No one ever asked me what my comforts were[…]

This collection is just a mindless chorus of similar female voices lamenting being overshadowed by men; a theme I can absolutely love when done well, but here it isn’t executed with particular craft or purpose. I could pretty much hear Howard’s internal monologue as she was writing: “What if The Green Knight… but feminist? What if Orpheus and Eurydice… but feminist? What if Macbeth (kind of)… but feminist?” Like… ok, great, good start—and then what? Feminism is just an idea, an ideology, not a fully-constructed narrative. Each story just felt like a rough sketch of something and each ended in an anticlimax.

Thankfully the story that I enjoyed the most was the longest one—the novella-length Once, Future, a meta retelling of Le Morte D’Arthur. I thought this one was fun, at least: I think Howard’s strength is plot, which is why it was frustrating to see so little of it across these stories. I don’t think she excels at theme, atmosphere, or descriptive writing, and that’s pretty much all these stories purportedly have going for them.

This just wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. It clearly works well for the right reader, so if it interests you at all I’d absolutely encourage you to read a sample and see what you make of the writing style, but I just didn’t get on with it at all and I hope Marija forgives me.


11 thoughts on “book review: A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard

  1. i mean we all know i’d forgive you anything but this calls for a cancellation for the duration of AT LEAST three hours.

    tbh i am not even sure i like this anymore after reading this review SO I HOPE YOU’RE HAPPY. in all seriousness, i will definitely reread this to see if it still works for me (and i do think that the novella is the strongest story in here as well, except i loved it lmao).

    Liked by 1 person

    • PHEW my three hours are up, thank the good lord

      Thank you my benevolent apprentice for not cancelling me permanently and respecting our difference in opinion. BUT REALLY I don’t want to ruin your love for this book, though I do know what you mean, sometimes we love a book at a particular moment and it doesn’t hold up with how our tastes evolve. But tbh I hope you re-read it and still love it and this can just be our Dream Thieves 2: Electric Boogaloo


  2. Oh no, this sounds terrible! Combines several of my least favourite things – adult fiction that reads like YA, women lamenting being left out of history without any further point to the story, and pretentious prose (I really hate ‘smelled of paper and stories’).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh you would HATE this. It’s exactly that thing we were just talking about re Learwife. Too many “woe is me, I am an overlooked woman of classic literature” books for me this month!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I rolled my eyes involuntarily at every single line you posted. Oh my GOD this sounds insufferable. But it reminds me of why I used to get really irritated with YA even when I read fiction. It just felt like so much of this overly stylized, melodramatic Livejournal-type of opaquely poetic musings (I know that’s not EVERY YA book but it was a lot of them, and the fairy tales/myths “reimagined” was such a popular subgenre too!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes!!! I get that part of it is just YA wasn’t written for me, and I get that when you’re a teen everything feels so heightened and dramatic, but I just cannot deal with books like this, the melodrama is so cringe.

      That said, I miss LiveJournal LOL

      Liked by 1 person

      • me too!!! I mean to be fair I used LiveJournal for exactly what I’m describing here, totally melodramatic high school lamentations, lolol. Also I really miss Xanga. It was actually such a great community, and slightly more mature melodrama, if such a thing can exist, haha!


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