The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart – Book Review (Archived)

Reposted from The Fantasy Hive for Archival Purposes
Published by: Orbit.
Genre: High Fantasy.
Series: The Drowning Empire (#1)
Format: Audiobook.
Run Time: 13 hrs and 44 mins.
Purchased Copy via Audible.

An authorial debut can go three ways—it might discourage you from ever again looking at the work of one author or another, it might offer a pleasant but forgettable distraction, or it will leave such a favourable impression, you’ll be desperate to see what the author does next.

Would you care to wager which one this is?

Lin Sukai is the daughter of the Emperor, but hers is not a happy life. Her childhood has been taken away by a terrible disease; her mother, too, is dead, her every portrait burned. Her father, ailing and of an advanced age, is far removed from the everyday reality of his Empire. The two of them, along with Lin’s adopted brother Bayan, live behind the high walls of the Imperial palace. Though she is of his blood, Lin has been refused the knowledge behind the intricate Bone Shard magic that holds the Empire together; but what kind of a main character would take a father’s interdiction to heart?

Our plucky primary protagonist wants to change the Empire for the better, and she will let nothing stop her. What I enjoy about Lin Sukai is, she’s something of a force of nature, ready to uproot the given order of things if it’ll mean she unlocks the secrets of her family’s magic. She is led by intellectual hunger and ambition, and even a desire to belong to the world outside the palace walls. The challenges she faces on this secretive path are bold, addictive and not a little heart-rending.

Jovis is the novel’s second protagonist, lagging only a little behind Lin in terms of chapter count. He’s a smuggler who has spent the last few years chasing after the blue-sails ship that stole away his wife, a man who possesses an enormous heart, so big it offers no end of detours in his quest to find that ship. At the onset of the novel, Jovis makes friends with a cat-like sea creature named Mephi—this bond sets Jovis onto a collision path with criminal elements of the Sukai Empire, as well as with the Empire’s terrible bone shard constructs.

Jovis is human, all too human. His chapters were narrated by Feodor Chin, who imbued the character with the characteristics of such rogues as Han Solo and Matrim Cauthon. His chapters might’ve been some of the most action-heavy, though Jovis himself is not necessarily what you would call a brawler, being a more wispy fellow. As for Mephi? This little fellow is not just a pet, and it would bite your pen off if you tried to classify him as a familiar or even an animal companion. No, Mephi’s nature is one of the lingering mysteries this series will play around with.

Phalue and Ranami, along with a mysterious girl named Sand, are our tertiary protagonists—though the latter one’s nature might be more fluid. Phalue, I immediately liked. She’s a governor’s daughter, and a skilled fighter who has a firm distaste for her father’s life of opulence at the cost of the island’s villagers sickening and dying for want of medicine. Phalue and Ranami are together, a sort of fairy tale romance subverted due to Ranami’s discontentment with the injustices of the world. It was easy for me to get invested in their relationship.

For those of you who are addicted to unexpected twists and turns, The Bone Shard Daughter has no small amount of surprises in store. I’ve found I’ll often see plenty of twists coming a ways off before they come to fruition, but Andrea Stewart surprised me more than once—a few twists are fairly obvious, lulling you in a false sense of calm, a sort of “I’m onto you, author!” mode of thought; that’s a sleight of hand on Stewart’s part. For example, I believed I had pieced one of the side characters’ true identities for a good chunk of the novel…until the ending pulled the rug from underneath my feet.

I’ll take a moment longer to note, the worldbuilding is excellent. The way the Phoenix Empire is constructed, in particular, deserves a great deal of attention; control is maintained by the emperor through his constructs, animated through the bone magic that only he can work. As I mentioned, Emperor Sukai, lives in complete isolation. His entire power is dependent on four constructs – of War, of Trade, of Information and of That Fourth One That Filip Forgot. A rule by proxy, where the human element is altogether removed, and power is centralized in a way that even the Sun King would be envious of.

It is such precarious control, and fragile, however—what happens to the empire if the ruler dies, his magic not yet learned in full by either of his potential successors? That thought pushes Lin ever forward onto her quest; others are aware of the Emperor’s weakness, as well.

What else is there to say? Fine dialogue, engaging, gripping. The audiobook narration? It’s a gem. Part of the reason I picked this up in the first place was, I was looking for more works narrated by Emily Woo Zeller and she does an admirable job in bringing Phalue, Ranami and Sand’s chapters to life. The star of the production is Natalie Naudus, whose raw emotional performance breathed life in Lin in ways I couldn’t have hoped for.

I look forward to the sequel of one of 2020’s strongest debuts—Stewart’s world is one I can’t wait to revisit.

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