The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart etches its bone shard magic into a story of rebellion versus duty, unlocking door after door of the iron-fisted Phoenix Empire. It is the first of the Drowning Empire trilogy.
The floating islands of The Endless Sea have long been safe from the all-powerful Alanga, defeated by the powerful Phoenix Empire. The Emperor hides in his palace, surrounded by the unnatural constructs, creatures sewn together and animated with rune-engraved bone shards harvested from the empire’s citizens.
Lin, daughter of the tyrannical yet weary Emperor, is determined to prove that in spite of her broken memories, she will earn her place as his heir and successor. Her adopted rival, Bayan, also seeks to gain the Emperor’s favour and take Lin’s place as heir to the throne.
Jovis, a smuggler in search of the ship that kidnapped his long-lost wife, accepts a job on Deerhead Island to free a child from the barbaric annual festivals where fragments of bone are harvested from their skulls to fuel the Emperor’s constructs. As Jovis saves the child, the entire island sinks into The Endless Sea. Barely escaping with his life, Jovis rescues a strange creature swimming alongside his boat. The child names the creature Mephi, who refuses to leave Jovis’ side even after the child is safely delivered to their family.
As Lin secretly explores the secrets of the Imperial Palace, she uncovers the horrifying truth behind her father’s constructs. She vows to replace her father as emperor and better serve the people.
Catapulted to legendary status for his exploits at Deerhead Island, Jovis becomes entangled with the Shardless Few, a rebellious faction who seek to replace the empire and hand power to the people. As Mephi grows, Jovis discovers strange powers of his own.
Lin soon uncovers the true brutality of her father’s rule of fear, her striving for his approval instead becoming a desperate fight to survive.
There must be a bone shard somewhere inside me with the “read one more chapter” command etched onto it, as this story compelled me to read on right from the first few pages. Stewart awakens you in the midst of Lin being questioned by her father, the Emperor, probing for memories that are lost to her. We feel the Emperor’s disappointment in her inability to recall these memories. The sting of having less keys awarded to her than Bayan’s haul niggles at the backs of our minds.
Just as we’re here to follow Lin’s journey, The Bone Shard Daughter whisks us away to a new character, Jovis, who takes us through the doomed Deerhead Island. We learn the impact of the Emperor’s bone shard magic on the citizens of the Phoenix Empire, how it saw Jovis’ brother killed and shard sickness affecting those whose bone shards are powering the Emperor’s constructs.
Indeed, Stewart hops from the perspectives of the curious Lin, the wily smuggler Jovis, the fogged memory of Sand, the headstrong rebel Ranami and dutiful governor’s daughter Phalue. We never linger too long with any of the characters but we find common ground with all of them. I found myself enjoying Lin’s sections more than the others, as I’m a sucker for a mystery and her stealing keys to unlock the labyrinth of doors in the palace turned up secret after secret. However, each perspective paints a vast picture of a vibrant world, of long lost empires of the orient. The characters’ narratives all spiral into a strong cord that is the book’s climax, tightening as the world shifts and the stakes escalate.
The relationships are exceedingly well-written. The love between Phalue and Ranami is pure and heart-breaking, as their conflicting ideals threaten to tear their pure bond to pieces. Jovis’ unwavering search for his wife is a deep longing; it is loneliness and helplessness concentrated into the pages.
The multi-perspective nature of the narrative is always going to be risky in terms of pulling you in and out of the book’s plot threads. The obvious comparison is to that of Game of Thrones, where fatigue tended to creep in towards the latter books in the series. The Bone Shard Daughter holds up, its world engrossing enough that the perspective switches doesn’t detract from understanding what is going on.
My incredibly minor, nitpicking criticism concerns the fighting scenes in the book. I found that too often, a character would feel jaws clamp around their shoulder, teeth breaking the skin and tearing through clothes. Jovis stepped through a soldier’s guard on several occasions. The final scene, pitting constructs against constructs, was challenging. Throughout the book it is made to seem that rewriting the bone shard magic is more timely a procedure than in the climactic scene, yet Lin gains a lightning-quick pace when it’s needed.
I like this as a standalone novel, although the second book, The Bone Shard Emperor, is due in November. It’s a definite one for my TBR pile as I want to spend more time with these characters and in The Endless Sea. A trilogy to get your teeth stuck into.