Andrea Stewart weaves a thrilling new fantasy story with The Bone Shard Daughter. Intrigue, ancient enemies, diverse creatures, an intricate magic system, characters with heart, and an island filled world come together in some fascinating world building to deliver a story that grabs you and won’t let go.
“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 Bone Shard Daughter marks the debut of a major new voice in epic fantasy.
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.” – Goodreads blurb
I was very excited to get a copy of The Bone Shard Daughter in the mail from Orbit because after I’d first read about it online I knew I had to have a copy. What sold me wasn’t the story itself, but rather the magic system, which is odd for me because while I do enjoy a good magic system it isn’t usually my favorite aspect of a fantasy story. In this case though…well let me just change things up and start there.
The Magic System
Magic in The Bone Shard Daughter isn’t woven as much as it is written, or rather inscribed or etched…on bone. Children in this world are brought out at an annual festival where they have a bone shard removed from behind their ear. Not all survive the process. Those bone shards are taken to the capital and given to the emperor who uses them to create animated constructs of varying degrees of intelligence and power. He does this by inscribing command words in the bone and placing them inside the construct. Who the construct obeys, what it is to do, and how it makes decisions are all dictated by the bone shards.
I was fascinated. I mean sure there are other stories out there that use runes or other inscriptions to dictate the flow of magic, but this is a bit different. And even more important this magic is controlled by one person, the emperor. I love this element to the story as it points back to a trope I do rather enjoy in fantasy, the idea that words have power. In this case it is the words or characters inscribed on the bone shards, a process held in secret by the line of emperors. And with any compelling magic system it comes with a cost, some die during the process of gathering them, and others weaken or die if their shards are overused. It adds a layer of grief and weight and responsibility to the use of the magic brought out in all too sad and sobering ways within the book.
But…we soon learn bone shard magic isn’t the only magic that exists in the world. In fact it is a response to another form of magic held by an ancient race who was overthrown by the first emperor who freed humanity from their control. Or so it is to be believed. But before I come back to the story let’s talk characters.
The Characters And POV
There are two protagonist characters in The Bone Shard Daughter, two more primary POV characters, and numerous other non-POV characters.
Lin – The daughter of the emperor. Lin is a young woman struggling with memory loss. After waking from a fever a few years ago she cannot remember her past. She is chaffing under her father’s scrutiny as he constantly hounds her to remember her past. He withholds knowledge of bone shard magic, and with it the promised succession to his role and title if she cannot remember. She wants nothing more than to learn the secrets her father withholds and take her rightful place.
Jovis – The seafaring smuggler. Jovis is a man on a mission to find his kidnapped love. She disappeared years ago and he’s been sailing in search of her ever since. On the run from a smuggling ring (his former employer) he must navigate treacherous waters while steering clear of them and the reach of the empire.
Phalue – The governor’s daughter. Phalue is the headstrong and capable daughter of one of the empire’s governors. Only she’s fallen in love with a common woman from the island who is trying to teach her about how her fathers subjects live under imperial rule, and in turn teach her more about herself. Phalue is more fighter than sheltered daughter and struggles with her duty to the empire and her love for this young woman who is steering her towards rebellion.
Sand – The mysterious woman on a mysterious island. Sand is a mystery for most of the book. She has no memory of anything other than the island she’s on, and no memory of ever doing anything other than what she does day-in and day-out gathering fruit for the community.
Stewart alternates between these characters and their points-of-view in an interesting way. The two primary characters, Lin and Jovis are told in the first person, while the other two characters are told in the third person. I’m not sure I’ve read a book before that does this. At least not that I can remember. What I found really fascinating was it took me a bit to figure it out. It may be a testament to Stewart’s writing that I didn’t pick up on it right away, but once I did, I kept asking myself “why?” Not because the shift threw the flow of the reading off (it didn’t), but because there HAS to be a reason. Right? Is it just to designate the primary characters or is it for some other reason not yet revealed? And the answer is I don’t know. But it has me really curious to find out as the series progresses.
The World Building
The world building really shines in The Bone Shard Daughter. It isn’t your typical western fantasy world and I love it. For starters it is an Asian inspired world, or at least the part of it we see, though it isn’t intricately Asian. I say that last bit not as a positive or negative critique, but because of the growing discussion in the fantasy book community about western bias in publishing at the expense of non-western voices and settings.
There’s the magic system which I’ve already discussed. Bone shards…powered by inscriptions…yeah, still linking this system.
Then there’s the islands. The world of The Bone Shard Daughter is made up of islands. Migrating islands to be specific. Just how or why they migrate isn’t explained, and it doesn’t seem like the people of the world actually know either. But they float and I imagine them to be like air citadels in other fantasy stories, only in this case just floating on the water. Could you imagine having to navigate a boat in such a world where the port you are looking for is never in the same place?!? This is really cool.
And finally, the creatures. On one hand I’m talking about the magical constructs created by the emperor to do his will. These are creatures put together from varying animal parts to make whole new strange…things. Powered by the bone shards they do the emperors bidding. Some are spies, some are tax collectors, some or port authorities, some are ministers of trade, or war. All are fascinating. But in addition to these there are a number of other natural creatures roaming this world with interesting abilities which I won’t go into yet because spoilers. Let’s just say I love the creativity of the various beings that make up this world.
And so I circle back to the story because no matter how compelling any individual aspect of a narrative (such as the magic system) it will be irrelevant to most readers if the story isn’t compelling. What I think makes The Bone Shard Daughter compelling is that at it’s heart it’s a story about identity. I can’t say much in the way of details without spoilers, but each character in the book is struggling with identity and purpose. Who are they in relation to others; what is their role within their family and the world; how does their past impact the present; who are they now; who are they meant to be? Identity and purpose drives the narrative and is at the heart of every conflict and struggle in the story and it creates the intrigue which drives it.
It is also told with heart. As each character struggles with figuring out their identity and purpose we get some moving scenes as their actions come to impact others in both uplifting and destructive ways. These are not static protagonists, and how they deal with these conflicts and interactions shapes who they become over the course of the book.
All of this combines into a tale of empire and revolution, upheaval and change, who holds power and who doesn’t, and the fear of the past as well as the future.
I only found a couple of faults with the book. The first is that unlike the protagonists, some of the secondary non-POV characters are a bit static. This isn’t unusual in fantasy, but it stood out primarily in the big baddie of the book (no spoilers yet). The antagonist was maybe two dimensional at best, but still made a compelling baddie for the story.
The second issue I had was with the ease of using the bone shard magic in certain high-risk, critical circumstances where speed was a factor. There were a couple of scenes where characters were able to reach into a construct, extract a shard, etch a new inscription, and re-insert it in the middle of a fight with little loss of time. It seemed a bit too easy given the circumstances of a fight raging around you. That is in opposition to instances where other characters special abilities would flag at times of crucial import – in those instances it heightened the effect and made the narrative of that chapter much more dramatic and intense.
All-in-all I really enjoyed The Bone Shard Daughter. The magic system was really cool along with the world building. Stewart’s writing never got bogged down and kept me turning pages. The characters were full of heart and their efforts to come to grips with who they are and their purpose in the world made me care. And the story itself kept me in suspense about where things would lead even when I’d figured out some of the not yet revealed secrets. But there’s still a lot to be told in this story. It’s evident from the book’s conclusion that we’ve only scratched the surface of where things will go and the stage is set for a fantastic new series. You should pick up a copy and check it out for yourself.
I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher.
4 of 5 Stars
Author: Andrea Stewart
Series: The Drowning Empire #1
Publication Date: September 8, 2020
Format: Arc Paperback