Title: The Bone Shard Daughter
Series: The Drowning Empire #1
Author: Andrea Stewart
Father told me I’m broken.
Lin knows that she is the emperor’s daughter and heir. Five years ago, a sickness took all memories of her previous life, and her father refuses to teach her his bone shard magic until she regains it. But she’s tired of waiting and afraid that Bayan, her foster brother, will take her place as the heir. She is determined to prove her worth to her father, even if that means stealing his keys to open the doors of the palace and study his magic in secret.
Meanwhile, a rebellion is stirring on the floating islands of the Empire. Jovis is a smuggler looking for his lost wife. He doesn’t want anything to do with the rebels, but an act of kindness will drag him into the heart of the Shardless Few anyway, until he is confronted with the ultimate choice: keep looking for his wife, who might as well be dead, or stay and help to overthrow the emperor.
A closer look
The Bone Shard Daughter is an adult fantasy debut that has received a lot of praise from basically everyone that has read it. I liked it, but I also had a few issues with it – no one is surprised, right? – and I ended up with mixed feelings.
The world-building is really interesting. The Empire is an archipelago, but what makes it more original than most is the fact the the islands float and migrate, apparently following an established route of some kind. We are told things like “this is the period in which island A is the closest to island B” a couple of times by the characters, even though it’s never explained how the islands move, or how they stay afloat at all. But it’s the first book in a series, so there’s time to get explanations yet. We also get hints that there are only two main seasons in this world, a dry one and a rainy one, which might be interesting if we ever get to see how it affects people’s lives on a day-to-day basis.
There was also an ancient race, called the Alanga, who oppressed the people in ages past. A past emperor managed to fight them back with the help of the bone shard magic, but it’s never explained who they were, what they actually did, and how this magic managed to defeat them. We only know about them because they left some buildings, statues and artefacts that are named here and there, and because apparently they are the excuse for the emperor to justify his use of magic even now.
Now we get to the magic itself: on their eighth birthday, citizens of the empire are required to give up a shard of bone from their skull, during what is called Tithing Festival. The process itself is quite dangerous, as the children might die from a wrong scalpel blow; it makes you wonder why they don’t take this bone shard from a different part of the body, but maybe there’s a reason for that? Maybe only bone from the skull works? Who knows.
As if the risk of immediate death is not enough, the bearer also faces ill effects when their shard is used to power a construct. They first experience a strange weariness, as the shard saps their strength, and then it’s only a matter of time before they are bedridden and feverish, and finally die. It’s not a pretty way to go, not only for the victims, but also for their friends and family, who are powerless as they watch their loved ones die – and still fear that they might be next.
The constructs are made up of parts of different animals, and animated by shards that contain their instructions, as well as the energy to power them. Simple constructs have only a few shards and a few commands, but more complex ones can have hundreds depending on what’s expected of them. It’s fascinating when we get a glance at how one of this constructs works: their instructions reminded me a little of programming language, and they are something on the line of “If A happens, do B, unless exception 13” and things like that. I would have loved to see more of it.
The palace is apparently only inhabited by constructs. Servants, soldiers, spies, they are all animated by the magic. Just like every other bureaucratic figure that works on any of the island. It doesn’t look like the most practical or functional of systems, though, as most of them are easy to deceive if one is clever enough. Also, the emperor is the only one capable of repairing them when they stop working, so… I don’t know, I feel like there should be a better way to govern. Or we should see the emperor spending the best part of his days repairing constructs, instead of whatever it is that he’s doing.
Anyway, now that you have an idea of the kind of world we live in, let’s talk about the characters for a moment.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter. She contracted a sickness five years ago that erased all of her memories, to the dismay of her father. He now doubts that she can inherit the throne after him, and so refuses to teach her his magic. He also has a foster son, a promising youth by the name of Bayan, whom he trains in the art of bone shard magic as an added motivation for Lin to regain her memories.
Lin’s perspective was my favourite throughout the story. She didn’t care as much about her memories; she only wanted to prove that she was good enough to be the heir, and worked for it. I also liked her relationship with Bayan, the mix of dislike because of what he represented, but also the feeling that they had something in common after all. My only issue with her is that she reads like a sixteen-year-old, even though she’s supposed to be twenty-three or something.
Jovis is another of the protagonists. He takes up most of the space of the novel after Lin, and they are the only two characters whose chapters are told in first person. There are other point-of-view characters as well, but they have little space compared to Lin and Jovis, and are also narrated in third person. We’ll get to them in a moment.
Jovis is a smuggler. He used to be a navigator for the empire, but he’s always been scorned due to his ethnicity. Seven years ago his wife was taken away; he found only a pile of coins left as a payment, and he’s been looking for her since. He knows she was taken by a dark boat with blue sails, so he travels the islands in the hope of seeing the boat again and finding out where her wife has gone. He will get involved with the rebellion despite his best efforts.
He also picks up a weird little creature on the way, and unwillingly gets attached to it. Mephisolou – the creature – was my favourite character.
The other characters are Phalue, the daughter of a governor, who likes fighting and women; Ranami, her girlfriend, a peasant; and Sand, a woman without memory, who spends her days picking mangoes on an island at the edge of the empire. I didn’t really care for any of them.
I didn’t buy the relationship between Phalue and Ranami, and actually hated the way Ranami treats her. Also, I feel like their chapters didn’t add anything important to the story. Even though they are supposed to give us an insight into how the Shardless Few (the rebellion) works, we could get the same information through Jovis.
The same can be said about Sand; I understand her perspective serves a purpose, but I couldn’t care less about her. In her case it would have been tricky to relay the same information in a different way, though, and at least I can see where her story is going and how it will affect the main plot.
The writing is pretty good and the book reads quickly, even if there is some weird phrasing here and there. For example, at some point a character is talking and says: “We can almost entirely avoid guards at all.” It’s… a bit convoluted to say the least. Fortunately I noticed this kind of thing only a couple of times, and the example above was the most noticeable.
The plot twists are interesting, but not too hard to guess. I called the first one when I was little more than halfway through, even though the “revelation” happened almost at the end, and once I guessed that one, it wasn’t too hard to piece together most of the rest. There’s still a little bit of mystery surrounding Sand and her island, but I have theories about that as well.
The ending felt a bit rushed, and I also feel like some of the emperor’s actions toward the end were a little stupid. He’s supposed to be a clever guy, right?
Another thing that didn’t really satisfy me was the fact that everything felt a bit too easy. Jovis would run away from creditors, get stopped a couple of times, but eventually be free by the end with maybe a few scratches. Lin would tamper with one of her father’s most complex constructs, and his reaction would be to lock her up in her room.
They are never faced with truly insurmountable odds, and the fact that they never suffer harsh consequences for their actions takes away from the tension.
All in all, it was an interesting book, but it didn’t live up to the hype for me. I was expecting an adult fantasy, intrigue, magic. Instead this book read like a YA to me, and while some of the ideas were great, I guess I was expecting something different. Some of the perspectives didn’t add much to the plot, and Jovis’s main merit was to show us a little bit of the world outside the palace. The rebellion didn’t feel like a dangerous, organised thing that had been around for years, but more like a group of people who woke up one morning and decided to create some trouble.
I still don’t know if I will pick up the sequel. There are some answers that I’d like to get, but while I think the premise was super interesting, the execution didn’t really satisfy me.