Reviews

Review: The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart

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SYNOPSIS:

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. 


RATING: ☆★☆★☆

              “Father told me I’m broken,” the novel begins, and those five words immediately swim through a thousand questions flooding the reader’s mind.

              The questions will be answered eventually—most of them, anyway—but not before Andrea Stewart makes us at home in the minds of four narrators whose individual stories are imagined vividly enough to make for several rich and engrossing SF standalone novels.

              The Bone Shard Daughter feels, in that sense, like a fist clenching a tangle of threads. And the most vivid of these threads begins with Lin.

              Lin is heir to the Phoenix Empire, but with memories of her past washed away by the Sickness like a wet painting in a storm, her father—the Emperor—refuses to acknowledge her as such. Shutting himself away with Bayan—the Emperor’s protégé and Lin’s rival—to experiment and pry away at the bone shards inside of his constructs, the Emperor has no time for her brokenness. Lin has also forgotten how to work bone shard magic, and she feels the absence of that knowledge within her like a hunger. But she will not wait until her father’s patience is drained to the dregs, leaving nothing but a hard crust of disdain behind. With all other options untenable, Lin sets out to pry at her father’s secrets, unlocking the mysteries of his creations, one by one.

              The second thread is tied to Jovis whose missing wife’s face is suspended in his memory like an axis point around which all else turns. Seven years have fallen away, and Jovis still sails the Endless Sea, chasing rumors of a dark boat with blue sails—the one that took his wife Emahla—while outrunning his creditors. One day, Jovis plucks a strange creature out of water, and the strange creature plucks him out of a grief so vast Jovis couldn’t see its edges. Soon, new rumors hang heavy in the air, and they speak of a smuggler with preternatural strength who saves children from the Tithing Festival with his peculiar animal companion. Where legends are gathering names, Jovis’ name seems to be among them—even if that was the last thing Jovis needed.

              In Nephilanu Island, the third thread runs through Phalue’s story. Phalue—daughter and heir to the island’s governor—is wondering if the ravine between her and her partner Ranami will ever be small enough to close. Phalue’s fear properly kindles when she discovers that Ranami is conspiring with the rebellious Shardless Few to take down the Phoenix Empire and restore power to the people. Phalue and Ranami’s beliefs start clashing like swords, and Phalue realizes that if she hopes to make a bridge for her and Ranami to cross, she must first confront all the things about empire and her role in it that she’s studiously avoided looking in the eyes before.

              The gray undifferentiated morass that are Sandu’s days come into sharp, potent focus in the last thread of the story. After Sandu falls from the tree where she collects mangoes and hits her head, the lull fog she’s been living in suddenly thins to wisps, and Sandu is able to recover some of her memories. Sandu sets out to break the other residents of Maila from the thrall of whatever spell she was under, and break out from her prison.

When a shark offers up a pearl, be wary of its teeth. My father liked to tell me that when we were sailing, though I found this lesson most often applied on land.

              There’s clearly a lot to set up here, and plenty of fabric to weave carefully together, but Andrea Stewart, impressively, never once skips a stitch.

              There is no shortage of things to be impressed by here, but the book’s main strength to me is in the voices the author gives her characters.

              Stewart has gone for a bold, tricky form: the author ushers in readers through four different storylines from four different narrators—and she does it with clarity and narrative precision. Stewart even makes it seem effortless, juggling all four POVs with the confidence of a circus performer on a tightrope. Each character has a chapter, and within the chapters their lives overlap, forming a complicated composite of friends and foes and other names in-between, but their backgrounds, their experiences, their motivations and choices could not be more different. This structure—supported by the characters’ intense internality—allows the author to examine her story from multiple, sometimes mutually contradictory angles, all the time.

              As the plot unfurls, the novel reveals the complex facets of empire: Lin, who’s set to inherit an Empire fraying at the edges, discovers that by attempting to salvage it her choices might have only tugged loose more threads; Phalue, whose image of Empire was preserved in false perfection, is straining against what she had taught herself to believe and is forced to reckon with the extravagance of tricks with which that same empire presents itself as good; Jovis, who’s spent seven years drifting through empire like a solitary ghost hosting a vigil for forgotten things, wanted nothing to do with Empire, but Empire was a dark hole standing between Jovis and his missing wife and there was no escape; and Sandu, though far away from the Empire’s heart, knows very keenly what it is to be like firewood, cut down just to burn in Empire”s hearth. The characters, individually, must reckon with the terrible, unpayable cost of Empire, and only together can they figure out how to stop it from turning its poisons against its own flesh

              Along the way, the novel also brings up head-spinning ideas about power—how it can be a double-edged sword, something to be yearned for as well as distrusted—and about identity and how our personal histories can both build up and trap us—and leaves you with plenty to pore over long after you turn the last page.

A person who can’t see a future doesn’t have a future.

              Stewart also excels at intricate, layered world-building that draws you in so deeply you can vividly see it in your mind’s eye, leeching the real, tangible world around you pale as mushrooms. But there’s a lot of mystery to it too, as though a curtain you haven’t realized was there would fall down at any moment, and someone—or something—would step onto the stage and assume the role written for them. This heady mix of known and unknown lends the story an exquisite sense of urgency, and makes for a tale you can only read breathlessly, chasing the pages, and only occasionally slowing down to savor the author’s gift for finding perfectly unique turns of phrases.

              I read this book in two settings, hanging tightly each time onto the different threads of the narrative so that I could hold the whole puzzle up in my mind, spin it, look for how it fit together. Stewart has her final destination clear in mind, expertly weaving the various points of views and plotlines in ways that feel both unexpected and inevitable while also setting up what promises to be even more momentous challenges in subsequent books. All in all, this is quite an impressive debut.

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