Mysteries, Colonialism, and Revolution: Andrea Stewart – The Bone Shard Daughter

Whenever a book is surrounded by lot of hype, I get suspicious but it also depends on what kind of hype we’re talking about. If the hype starts well before publication date, it’s likely just good marketing and may lead to disappointment on my part when actually reading the book. BUT if the hype begins slowly, building up more and more as more people read the book,  then that’s probably because it’s a good book that appeals to a great many people. In the case of The Bone Shard Daughter, I believe the hype is honest and comes from readers’ true feelings rather than a well-oiled marketing machine, although the latter definitely helped.
Long story short: This is a book everybody seems to love and I am part of everybody now.

THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER
by Andrea Stewart

Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 438 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 44 minutes
Series: The Drowning Empire #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Father told me I’m broken.

In an empire controlled by bone shard magic, Lin, the former heir to the emperor will fight to reclaim her magic and her place on the throne.
The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.

This was exactly the kind of fun, thoughtful, epic SFF I had been hoping to get based on the buzz surrounding it. It has everything you could want from a fantasy novel, although I am still confused about it being shelved as YA on Goodreads. If fast-paced equals YA these days, then I guess okay, but other than that, the only reason I can see is that it was written by a woman and I had hoped we’ve come far enough to understand that women don’t automatically write YA… Oh well, whatever you want to call it The Bone Shard Daughter is amazing. Let me tell you why.

It is set in an archipelago ruled by an Emperor whose family is the only one that can use bone shard magic. With this magic, he can create constructs – animal-like creatures with his will embedded in them – that can do anything from run the country to serve in a construct army. The magic works with bone shards (duh) that are inscribed with a command which is then inserted into the construct, which in turn has to follow this command. So although it’s clearly magic, I love that there’s an undertone of logic to it. Creating a complex construct is almost like writing a computer program where different commands can’t contradict each other if the construct is to work properly, etc.
But this magic comes at a price, and it’s not one the Emperor pays, but rather his citizens. In regular tithing ceremonies, bone shards are extracted from the people’s children – those shards have to come from somewhere, after all. And whenever a bone shard is used in a construct, it slowly saps the life energy out of its original owner…

On Imperial Island, we follow Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, as she is working to prove herself worthy for the succession. When Lin was a child, she caught a mysterious sickness that made her lose most of her early memories. This sickness came with Bayan, the Emperor’s ward and Lin’s competition for the throne. There are many things Lin doesn’t understand: why Bayan’s memories seem to return more quickly than her own, why her father won’t grant her more keys to explore the palace and learn to do bone shard magic, why the things written in her recently discovered diary don’t make sense…
I can’t talk too much about Lin’s story line without giving things away. But it’s a thrilling plot with  many twists along the way. I must admit I guessed one of them quite a bit before it was revealed but that didn’t diminish my reading pleasure in the least. With or without plots, there was so much in Lin’s story to keep me entertained. Through her, we learn a lot about how bone shard magic works, as well as the way the Empire operates. I also enjoyed her relationship with Bayan, strained and mercurial as it is. And Lin doesn’t seem to be okay with the way her father exploits his own people for making constructs. His pretext is that the Alanga – a powerful magic people defeated by the current dynasty – may come back one day and he needs to defend the empire.

So the power dynamics in the empire are set up pretty clearly but Andrea Stewart doesn’t leave her world quite so black and white. On Nephilanu Island, we follow the governor’s daughter Phalue who is in love with Ranami – who in turn is part of a rebellion wanting to make life better for the lower classes. While the same power dynamics are at work here (albeit on a smaller scale), I loved how Stewart shows a different aspect of it through the eyes of different people. Both Phalue and Ranami have POV chapters which makes it all the more interesting to see their story unfold. Phalue has grown up privileged but she’s only now coming to terms with what that really means and what life is like for other people, including the woman she loves. Much like Lin, she faces some tough decisions between a comfortable life at the cost of others’ happiness and a revolution that may cost her her own safety.

The third, and for a long time my favorite, plot string follows Jovis, notorious smuggler and accidental savior of children. Jovis just wants his wife Emahla back but all he knows is that she was kidnapped and taken onto a dark ship with blue sails, a ship he has been hunting for years now, without ever catching it. On one of his stops, he saves a young child from the tithing ritual and also, purely by accident, a strange cat/ferret/seacreature that jumps onto his boat. After delivering the child back to safety, the strange creature – now called Mephi – stays with Jovis and will bring much joy and surprise to both Jovis and the readers of this book.
Jovis slowly turns into something of a legend, a man who snatches children away just before the tithing, saving them from having their skulls cut open and maybe dying in the process (like Jovis’ own brother when they were kids). But Jovis never loses sight of his quest and he never stops yearning for his wife, even when he sees that revolution is brewing in the empire and he may be needed to help it along.

There is one more POV character named Sand, but she appears so rarely and her chapters are kept so mysterious that I don’t want to give anything away. Just remember she’s important and may serve as a catalyst for the bigger story arc of the trilogy/series.

I had so much fun reading this book! Not only is the world building really interesting, there’s also a very cool magic system that I loved to explore. And the characters all came across as believable people with a history and hopes and dreams. Jovis especially grew dear to me, and not only because of his relationship with Mephi. I mean, who can resist a good animal companion? But Lin also goes through quite a few revelations, learning things both good and bad, and handling them capably but not perfectly. I can’t stress enough how wonderful it is to read about intelligent protagonists who aren’t perfect. Lin is clever and thinks ahead, but she’s also a young woman without a lot of life experience (and some of what she does have is missing along with her memories!), so she makes mistakes but her mistakes are understandable and only make her more relatable.

The world building already has so much interesting stuff to offer in this first volume, but it promises much more for the later books. The empire’s history is hinted at many times but we don’t get any real details about who the Alanga were and why they were so powerful. Many questions remain unanswered about the constructs or why only the imperial family can use bone shard magic, why Jovis’ wife was kidnapped and what that ship with the blue sails is all about. But even without answers to those questions, The Bone Shard Daughter delivers a satsifying ending to its three plot strings, all while making it clear that this is only the beginning and there’s much more epicness to come.

The only critique I have about this book is that things almost happen a bit too quickly. Normally, when I call a book fast-paced it’s a compliment. And I definitely recommend The Bone Shard Daughter for its quick plot(s), but because this novel isn’t only about the plot but has so much more to offer in terms of world building and character development, I almost wished there were more quiet moments that let me dive deeper into these aspects. Don’t get me wrong, Stewart does a masterful job of introducing her world and characters without long expositions or info dumps and that feat deserves all the praise. But every time we switch POV, it feels like the plot has already moved along at breakneck speed and we don’t get time to settle down with the last bit of new information we’ve learned before the next twist comes along. A little time to breathe in between epic revelations, action sequences, daring nightly excursions, etc. would have been nice.

It’s a flimsy complaint to make but it did have an effect on my reading experience. You see, I’ve noticed that I remember some books in much more detail than others and I’ve been trying to pin down why exactly that is. It’s not always the big, chonky ones that stick in my memory more (you’d think spending 500 more pages with a story will make it last longer in your brain, right?), nor is it necessarily the ones that I raced through because I was so excited and engaged. The Bone Shard Daughter was one of those books I never wanted to put down. I liked all the POV characters, I was engaged in the plot and sub plots, I wanted to learn more about the world and its magic and history, I wanted to unravel all the secrets, I wanted the characters to be okay, and those are literally all the things I hope for when I open a new book. But something was still missing. I read this book so quickly that I never felt I could truly fall into the world, if you know what I mean. It’s not like in a Robin Hobb book where I get so immersed in the world that plot becomes secondary.
I can’t tell yet because I’ve just finished this book but I suspect I’ll need a “previous on” when the next book comes out and I don’t remember any of the details I need. But no matter whether it sticks in my memory or not, reading this was an absolute pleasure and I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of SFF, especially ones looking to get out of a reading slump.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

 

6 thoughts on “Mysteries, Colonialism, and Revolution: Andrea Stewart – The Bone Shard Daughter

  1. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    I will defffffffinitely need a “previously on” when the second book comes out — though honestly, I have to keep beating my drum about how all fantasy/SF sequels should have a “previously on” section before the book begins. I don’t know why we don’t do that! It would be objectively useful and great!

    Liked by 1 person

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