The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

September 10, 2020

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.

In an empire made up of floating islands, adrift on a vast endless sea, an old emperor spends his time honing his magical skill. He picks apart the building blocks of creation while ignoring the suffering of the people he once pledged to protect. The system the Emperor created is failing, and the need for change grows stronger every day.

Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, knows that something is fundamentally wrong. She just can’t quite put her finger on exactly what the source of the problem is. Her father treats Lin as a virtual prisoner within the palace. The only time the Emperor seems interested in his daughter is regarding her fragmented memories from years past. You get a sense of Lin’s inquisitive nature from the very first chapter. She questions everything. Where does she fit within the grand scheme of things? Why are there so many locked doors in the palace? What secrets are hidden within the walls? As Lin searches for answers more and more of the Emperor’s plan is revealed. How our heroine reconciles these revelations make for some of the novel’s most emotive scenes.

We also get to experience the lives of those on the opposite side of the societal coin. Jovis is a smuggler. On the run from the authorities, and the criminal underworld, he sees how the people of the islands are ground down by the Emperor’s rules. When he is first introduced Jovis comes across as more than a little self-absorbed. He is on a personal mission and the rest of the world is irrelevant. During his travels however, he begins to recognise the injustice that surrounds him. There is a basic inequality that Jovis just can’t ignore, no matter how much he may wish to. Only the threat of an ancient enemy returning keeps the people in line, but the embers of rebellion are beginning to ignite. I always enjoy a reluctant hero, and Jovis definitely falls into that category. He becomes an instrument of change more through luck than judgement. The fascinating thing is seeing him grow into the role. As the plot unfolds you start to see more and more flashes of the hero that he could become.

Elsewhere, a governor’s daughter, Phalue, is conflicted by her noble upbringing versus the suffering of the common folk. A group known as the Shardless Few are sowing the seeds of unrest on her father’s island and Phalue’s heart is torn between loyalty and love. Is her father nothing but a greedy, weak landowner or an honourable man trying to do his best? Can the Shardless be trusted or do they have their own agenda? As with Lin, Phalue is beset by a sense of internal conflict. Change is often a painful process, actions have consequences, and Phalue often doesn’t not which way to turn. The characters in The Bone Shard Daughter aren’t perfect and that’s what great about them. They have doubts, and sometimes they are driven by entirely self-serving motivations. Their flaws add extra layers of dimension to every interaction. They make them feel that much more real.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I think I’ll risk it. Readers are going to love the character Mephi. I’m not going to tell you why; you have to discover that for yourself. I don’t write book reviews to spoil people’s enjoyment of a reading experience you know. Just trust me, Mephi is awesome.

The magic system within The Bone Shard Daughter feels suitably unique. Through a tithe, the population literally give over part of themselves, bone shards, so the Emperor can create animalistic constructs that live only to serve. Bureaucracy, intelligence gathering, warfare and trade all fall under the constructs remit. This complex hierarchy of man-made beasts ultimately report to the Emperor. The trade-off being that when a shard is used it draws life energy from whoever was forced to donate it. They begin to lose the elemental lifeforce that drives them. Donors suffer health issues and age prematurely. This seemed a small price to pay when there was an enemy on the doorstep, but is it still necessary now? I loved the premise that the magic is driven by the logic of the rules inscribed directly on each individual shard. The more responsibility a construct has, the more intricately written shards are needed to control it. The person who understands the flow of logic on the shards, and how they are interwoven with one another, controls everything.

A random thought has just occurred to me, this novel would make an excellent Studio Ghibli film. The writing has a genuinely vivid quality that would transfer to anime perfectly. I wonder who I have to bribe in order to make that happen? I’m quite happy to sell my soul if that is of interest. I’d love to see the constructs and the islands of the empire brought to life on screen.

I find I could waffle on about this book endlessly. The Bone Shard Daughter really got under my skin. I will attempt to come to some sort of conclusion, however. Andrea Stewart’s debut novel is a confident, thought-provoking fantasy that is going to grab you from the first page. The characters are well observed, the world building is immaculate, and the plot has more than enough twists and turns to keep even the most jaded reader utterly engrossed*.  I’m looking forward to the next book in The Drowning Empire series already.

The Bone Shard Daughter is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended.

While reading The Bone Shard Daughter I listened to the soundtrack for Ghost of Tsushima by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi. It had just the right tone to perfectly complement the book. The album has some huge epic moments and others that feel fragile and intimate. Much like the narrative of the novel now that I come to think about it.

*Yes, I’ll admit I am the most jaded of readers but I’m old so that’s ok.


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