The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
The Bone Shard Daughter (2020) by Andrea Stewart is a fast-paced, enticing read, with an attractive world and a magical system that grabs the imagination with both hands and doesn’t let it go.
Stewart’s debut is the first book of a series, THE DROWNING EMPIRE. In an archipelago empire, the imperial Sukai dynasty defeated the powerful Alanga, who ruled it. The current emperor, Shiyen, uses bone shard magic to protect his citizens from the possible return of the Alanga. Shiyen runs his empire using constructs, chimera-like beings animated by chips of bone taken from every citizen of the empire, usually when they are children. At events called Festivals, chips of bone are chiseled out of each child’s skull, sometimes with fatal results. Those chips, later implanted into constructs, animate them. The magic allows the creator of the constructs to compel their behavior with directives etched into the shards — think “bone golems.”
Lin is the emperor’s daughter. Her father tells her she is broken, because she has no memory beyond five years previously, when she recovered from a deadly sickness. Lin must compete with her foster-brother to learn bone magic and regain her father’s approval. Lin resorts to desperate measures, but things she learns both inside and outside the palace make her question her father’s beliefs, his motives, and finally everything he’s told her.
Jovis makes ends meet by smuggling, as he searches for his missing wife who’s been gone seven years. When the island he is visiting abruptly starts to sink, Jovis reaches his boat with only a little boy he managed to rescue from the Festival. A little while later he saves a kitten that paddles frantically toward his boat. The kitten, it turns out, isn’t a kitten. Jovis doesn’t know what kind of animal it is, only that is seems to be magical and it won’t leave him.
Word of his saving the boy gets around and soon Jovis becomes a reluctant rescuer. Eventually he gets involved with the Shardless Few, a revolutionary group planning to overthrow a corrupt island governor.
Both Lin and Jovis wrestle with issues of identity and role, against a well-defined world. The magic of the Alanga — and the idea that they could come back — is mystifying, and Mephisolou, the animal, is a shining new light in the pantheon of Magical Animal Sidekicks. The bone shard magic is convincingly creepy, and the emperor keeps some secrets that are far, far creepier.
The Bone Shard Daughter held me riveted whenever Lin or Jovis were on the page. The story also dips into the viewpoints of Phalue, daughter of that corrupt island governor, and her lover Ranami. I found them less interesting. Phalue’s growth toward enlightenment seemed to happen quickly and easily.
The book also introduces us to a woman originally called Sand, who promises to play a larger role in future books.
Stewart has pretty descriptions of settings, both interiors and exteriors, and inventive creatures in the form of the various imperial constructs. Her prose gets the job done, and she’s set up a story I hunger to learn more of. The very islands themselves are interesting. The Bone Shard Daughter was a gripping, entertaining summer read.
The Bone Shard Daughter (2020), Andrea Stewart’s debut novel, is an engaging read with an interesting magic system, a strong premise, solid if some predictable plotting, a neat if not fully realized setting, and a mixed bag of characters. Overall, its strengths outweigh the few issues, making for an enticing opening to a new series, THE DROWNING EMPIRE.
The setting is an archipelago, most of which is ruled by a dynastic emperor whose ancestors long ago helped overthrow the Alanga, a group of uber-powerful magic users whose battles sank islands and destroyed cities. The Emperor (and only the emperor) employs “bone shard magic,” which involves building “constructs” from organic parts and then etching pieces of bone with what is akin to programming instructions and placing those shards inside the creatures. The problem is that the bone shards must come from living people, and so every young person in the Empire is subjected to the shard tithe, where a small piece from the skull is removed via trepanning, with a certain percentage dying from the ceremony. Worse, use of the shard shortens the life of whomever surrendered their bone, with the end coming relatively quickly once symptoms of “shard sickness” set in.
We’re introduced to the current Emperor by his young heir apparent, Lin. Unfortunately, some years ago she suffered an illness that robbed her of much of her memory, and until she proves to her father that she has recovered her memories, he continues to withhold his knowledge (and approval) from her, placing his trust instead in a young man (Bayan) he’s brought into the household as a possible heir.
The other major POV is Jovis, a smuggler who has spent years sailing the Endless Sea in search of his wife, abducted some time ago by a ship with blue sails. His desperate pursuit and the smuggling activity that funds it has made him a fugitive both to the Empire and to the criminal underground. He also, much to his dismay and befuddlement, has now found himself a folk hero who smuggles children away before the shard ceremony.
Meanwhile, on another island, rebellion is brewing against the local governor (cruelly oblivious to the suffering of the islanders) and the Emperor (by those opposed to the tithing and to the system of government). Ironically, the more truculent attitude toward the dynasty arises because the fear of the Alanga is so distant, but there are hints that a return may be imminent. Here our POV comes mostly via the governor’s good-hearted but almost as oblivious daughter, Phalue, and occasionally from her much more socially aware (and actively rebellious) lover Ranami.
Finally, the last and least frequent POV in The Bone Shard Daughter belongs to Sand, who, like the others on the island with her, moves through a complete fog of repeated activity, until a fall from a tree breaks her out of the fog, leaving her to try to wake the others, as well, so they can figure out what they’re doing on this island.
I love the archipelago setting and especially Stewart’s particularly original (as far as I know) take on it via the islands actually migrating so they’re always on the move, and the way rainy and dry seasons come for years, not months. I did, however, think the potential wasn’t wholly fulfilled as the islands did not feel at all distinct from one another, a missed opportunity for a richer setting atmosphere.
On the other hand, the magic system is both complex and original (I love how it relates to coding instructions) and the cost, morally and physically, is one of the book’s strongest aspects as Lin struggles with her relationship to the power and its tainted nature. It also does one of my favorite things in fantasy, where metaphor becomes literal, with the Empire literally sucking the life out of its population.
Plotting is mostly solid. There’s a tendency to end chapters at cliffhangers, which felt too noticeable as a pattern and so pulled me out of the book at points as I prefer when a writer doesn’t so overly show their hand. And a few big reveals, I’m thinking, will be less revelatory than intended for many a reader, who will call them pretty early on. Lin’s plot is the strongest thanks to the multiple opportunities for tension and conflict: between her and her father, between her and Bayan, between her father and Bayan, between her and a commoner family her actions put at risk, and between the same family and her father. All that in addition to the mystery of her past and of a multitude of locked rooms. There’s also a nice mix of emotional, physical, intellectual, and moral tension throughout her section. My one problem with her storyline is that a big chunk rests on what I found to be an utterly implausible action (actually, a lack of action) on her part, which while not a dealbreaker, definitely marred the thread.
Jovis is also a highly enjoyable plot thread. His character is completely familiar — the “I’m in it just for myself but really it doesn’t take much to reveal my true good heart” sort of roguish character — but this character type is so popular for a reason; they’re just so enjoyable. He has a winning personality and while one can easily see where his protestations of self-interest are going, it doesn’t negate the pleasure. Meanwhile, his desperate search for his lost love adds a nicely tragic and bittersweet aspect, though that would have been stronger had we a better sense of the woman herself, especially early on.
The section of The Bone Shard Daughter involving Phalue and Ranami I found far less successful than the other two. The characters are pretty thin and weakly developed, there’s a lot of telling rather than showing (I never truly felt any connection to them despite all the declarations of love), the pacing is less fluid, and the whole plot line is less compelling and less complex. Finally, Sand’s story is fine, but it takes up so little that there isn’t much to say about the plot itself, while her character is at this point mostly pretty thin simply because she is under that artificial mind-fog (i.e., her personality has been taken from her).
Each character goes through a change, often both due to an external event and an interior revelation. Each (Sand less so due to her special circumstances) is faced with a choice, typically an ethical one, and their decision moves them onto a different path. I also like how Stewart gives us characters at different levels of power and integration in this society. Lin, of course, is in the supreme seat of power. Phalue is a level below that as the daughter of a governor. Ranami was a “gutter child” who grew up with nothing and has seen firsthand the rot and cruelty in the Empire. Lin seeks the power of the Empire, Ranami seeks to overturn it, and Phalue is happy to be blindly content and complicit. Meanwhile, Jovis tries to simply exist outside the Empire, putting his personal quest over all else, though he eventually comes to learn he cannot live that way. And Sand, though again she’s in quite different circumstances, is almost the perfect echo/metaphor of Jovis, Lin, and Phalue in that she “awakens” out of a “fog” to find a true reality.
Many themes arise out of this stew of character and story: social justice, identity, memory, what it means to sacrifice for a “common good” and who does the sacrificing, class. Some of the themes are, admittedly, addressed more successfully than others. I also wouldn’t have minded a sharper bit of style/language, which I’d call adequately smooth but not memorable (one exception here is Stewart’s descriptions of some of the constructs). And some of the fight logistics were muddy or didn’t make a lot of sense to me.
In the end though, as noted, despite some flaws, Stewart’s novel is a relatively strong debut and leaves the reader wanting more. Luckily, I’m just about to start the sequel, The Bone Shard Emperor, so you won’t have to wait long to know if it holds to the The Bone Shard Daughter’s promise.
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