Tea starts her story by accidentally raising her brother from the dead. This is surely a traumatic enough experience for a young girl, but it marks her with the dark magic of the bone witch, unlike her sisters who possess ‘normal’ magic. So on top of having to deal with her corpse brother, Tea is now spurned by the village she’s grown up in. The Bone Witch (2017) explores Tea’s journey of coming to terms with the darkness within her and finding her place in a world that fears her.
You’d think that raising your brother from the dead was a decent hook if there ever was one, but the story had some problems getting off the ground. Rin Chupeco frames her tale with a narrative told by an unknown narrator before jumping straight into Tea’s recollection of her childhood. Perhaps it’s the leaping between time and character, but these opening scenes are difficult to get into, and Tea doesn’t prove an entirely compelling protagonist. After she performs her accidental resurrection, she is taken under the wing of an asha — a witch — named Mykaela, who will overlook her training. And this is where the story really begins.
Tea begins her training as a bone witch in an asha-ka — a tea-house-type boarding house run by one Mistress Parmina, ruthless old crone who has it in for Tea from the get-go. The asha-ka in the neighbourhood are all competing, each house’s asha vying for the most customers and seeking the highest favour. Sound familiar? That’s because this part of the plot is highly reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha. Tea starts out as a lowly maid, bowing to the whims of the more experienced ashas, but after a cruel trick is played on her, her education is sped up when she proves to be far more powerful than anyone had thought.
So after an initially shaky start, the plot really comes into its own (similarities to other novels aside), and so does Tea. Her character proves compelling and likeable, particularly her relationship with her corpse brother, Fox. Chupeco often describe his creaking bones in touches of horror that harken back to the genre she made her debut in. The story here seems also to draw on ideas from Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and Kvothe’s progression through his magical training — Tea even has a rival asha from a competing asha-ka that causes her grief. The formula may not be original, but there is no doubt that it works.
All Tea’s training is gearing her up to face the Daeva, a breed of mythical monsters terrorising the kingdom, and the plot slowly gears up to her eventual show-down with one of them. There are hints of other magical evils afoot — the mysterious Faceless who have long been the bane of the kingdom. It is never entirely clear who these Faceless are or what their gripe with the kingdom is, and this — after the slow start to the novel — is the biggest weakness of the story. Whilst the mythical background is rich and detailed, it is never completely fleshed out, particularly the trials and tribulations Tea must face. Whilst we know there is evil somewhere out there, it’s hard to put one’s finger on what exactly that evil is.
The supporting cast is most certainly one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Fox, Tea’s brother, is surprisingly likeable for a corpse, with his deadpan commentary on Tea’s training being one of the highlights of The Bone Witch. Likh, assistant in a jewellery shop Tea frequents, is perhaps the most endearing character; he embodies an interesting dichotomy between males’ and females’ place in society in the story.
Another similarity to The Name of the Wind is the book’s framing narrative, which actually worked better and better the more the story progressed. Whereas it initially hindered the pacing of the story, the tension between young naïve Tea and the formidable warrior we see in the flash-forwards becomes one of the pivotal plot-drivers.
The story ends on a cliff-hanger — and predictably so, as even in the final quarter of the novel, we are left with more questions than answers. Whilst readers may initially find it difficult to get into the story, it is well worth pushing through those first three or so chapters. The Bone Witch turns out to be a compelling and deftly-paced novel that will surely have readers eagerly awaiting its sequel.
I finished this story in the small hours of the morning, hardly knowing exactly how much time had passed in reading. The Bone Witch is equal parts complex and engrossing, plot driven and well-paced. The world of Tea is a fully realized one with myths and legends of its own that influence the happenings of the story. Tea proves to be an interesting protagonist as she navigates what is myth and what is the truth of her life. If there’s anything that gets me into a story it’s the presence of a character like Tea, and a world as mystical as that of The Bone Witch.
As you can read in many of the descriptions of The Bone Witch, Tea is scarcely done with her childhood when she raises her brother from the dead. With this action she ceases to be a normal commoner and is vaulted into the world of witchcraft very far from home. Witches, or asha as they are more accurately called, are widely accepted as part of the society Rin Chupeco has constructed. Asha tend to have an affinity for an element or multiple elements, and with that affinity they can learn a variety of skills. There are healers, dancers, warriors, and more among the ranks of the asha. For Tea this world is new and exciting but with its own drawbacks — as a bone witch, she has no affinity for the elements. She is only magically skilled in what is essentially necromancy. As such, she is an outcast of society and a person of interest among the asha. All this considered, Tea’s world has forever changed.
One of the major strengths of this story is the main character, Tea. Her reactions to her new world and new life are varied and interesting. She has a healthy internal confusion and mix of feelings as the world she lives in changes. Leaving her childhood home, navigating the spaces of the asha, learning many skills at once, her reactions to and confusion with the challenges she faces are interesting and wonderfully human. She may also be described as an ‘indomitable spirit’. If you’re not interested in headstrong young female protagonists, then this is probably not the book for you. The Bone Witch is undoubtedly Tea’s story, and she nothing if not stubborn. I did like that headstrong and humble were not mutually exclusive in this main character. Tea frets over her mistakes, and fears for the ‘life’ her brother leads now due to her actions. She has that young-protagonist-weight on her shoulders, and I was the most interested in seeing her bear it poorly.
The Bone Witch is rich with cultural details. It helps that the main character is entering the space of the asha, which holds a place of privilege among the upper class as well as its own unique culture. Another layer of richness to the story was the mixing of cultures that occurs within the ranks of the asha. The asha women are from every corner of the known world, and that mixture of diverse backgrounds is reflected in how they look, express themselves, and react to new ideas or information. The cultural and spiritual details in The Bone Witch lent a depth to the story I very much enjoyed.
Another aspect of The Bone Witch that helped me enjoy the book was the movement of the plot. I felt there was neither too little nor too much action for the subject matter, especially as a first book in a projected series. The pace lent itself well to an immersion in the text that left me neither bored nor rushed through to its conclusion.
The one weakness I felt with The Bone Witch was that the format of how the story was told tended to be weak. Chupeco utilizes a story-within-a-story format strongly reminiscent of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. The Bone Witch has the present version of Tea being visited by a bard who wishes to sing her story, and therefore wants to learn it from her — not from those who call her a villain. A large majority of the book is the story she tells the bard, so is set in the past. The present didn’t pack as much of an emotional or plot-driven punch as the story being told in the past. Additionally, the past/present format was all but invisible in the story. A strong link wasn’t made to sustain the format throughout the book. I do think it could improve and work better as the series progresses because we will have more to go on, both past and present. As it stands, it is perhaps the weakest aspect of the first book.
The Bone Witch encompasses a turbulent time in one person’s life. Tea is a complicated protagonist who I enjoyed rooting for, even when she was wrong. Rin Chupeco is building a fresh and interesting world I can’t wait to see the rest of, and I hope the next installations in THE BONE WITCH series lend more depth and clarity to the role of the bard and how his telling of Tea’s story impacts that world.