March of the Sequels: The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart (Book Review)

Admit it! You thought I’d miss the whole March book blog event–and I nearly did. But fret not, Reader, I’ve got you covered with a long overdue look at a sequel that flew past me last year.

It’s time to gush over Andrea Stewart’s Bone Shard Emperor!

A Sequel Worthy of the Name

When I reviewed The Bone Shard Daughter back in November 2020, I commended it for a riveting magic system, excellent worldbuilding, and principal characters it was all too easy to feel connected to–together, these elements, and more, made for one of the strongest, most memorable fantasy debuts I had read in years. I’m happy to report that The Bone Shard Emperor lives up to the promise of its predecessor.

Stewart’s sequel does what all second acts should: it builds up on a solid foundation, expanding the world and magic systems while raising the stakes for our beloved band of characters. New faces join Lin Sukai, Jovis, Phalue and Ranami–a capable steward to put the Emperor’s affairs in order, a mysterious monk whose companion belongs to a race all too familiar to some of Stewart’s characters, and a whole boatload of island governors intent on socio-political goals that often go against the Empire’s interests. That’s right: island politics! Extreme negotiations! Leaderless Bone Shard constructs attacking citizens and islands left and right! So much is happening at all times, you have got to admire Stewart’s skill in navigating the two main and three supportive PoV sections with both ease and elegance.

The magic systems are both expanded in ways I adored; Jovis’s powers are confirmed for what readers of the first book would have suspected without any issue, their elemental nature expanded into schools that might recall a few abilities you’ve seen in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Bone shard magic, too, is augmented, made even more macabre. I’m honestly surprised Stewart managed it, with the conclusion of Bone Shard Daughter in mind.

“I’d forgotten what a joy it was, losing myself in this work, putting together the pieces like a complex puzzle. There was a logic and simplicity in it that didn’t exist in politics and governance. I couldn’t please everyone I needed to, no matter how hard I tried. This, though, bent to my will and my thoughts. I could understand a little why my father had locked himself away, why he had let his constructs control the Empire. People were fickle, confusing, disloyal. People lied to you. People betrayed you.”

The Author’s Bread and Butter–Brilliant Character Work

“You’re the Emperor. You’re powerful. People have to have an opinion on you. They won’t all be good opinions. At some point you have to just do what you think is right.”

Lin Sukai, former Bone Shard Daughter, now Emperor…bloody rocks, y’all. I cheer for only a few characters the way I do for Lin* – hoping, even as events conspire against her, to see this new Emperor succeed in uniting her sinking, shattered empire. So much is against Lin here – she is a virtual unknown, heir apparent based on half-truths and even outright lies. What chance has she in winning openly hostile island governors over? But…if you’ve read the first novel, you’ll know this simple truth about Lin: the further you push Lin into the corner, the fiercer she’ll struggle. And with the stakes rising higher and higher? You’re in for a treat, reader.

I was not some pampered, cloistered Emperor’s get. I had clawed my way tooth and nail to this position, defying my father and teaching myself his magic. I was Lin, and I was Emperor. “Riya has an interesting way of greeting guests, Sai,” I said, my voice even. “Honored ones in particular.”

The character I struggled with most was Jovis. I zig-zagged back and forth on my like and dislike for this smuggler-turned-folk-hero as he takes on a new dual role: Captain of Lin’s guard and spy for the Shardless Few, secretly reporting on the one he has sworn to protect. With the outpouring of trust Lin shows him in particular, each missive he sends to the Shardless Few is another bitter sting. But the legitimate worry he shows for his Emperor, the regret, the basic human decency he exhibits, they thawed my annoyance even at its height, when he was particularly egregious. Add to that his sense of humour, and…I just can’t help but like the damnable smuggler!

“A song isn’t impenetrable armor. They write songs about dead people too, you know.” “But are they quite so catchy?”

Ranami and Phalue continue to be a favourite couple of mine; their issues resolved, the two are an absolute power couple! Support, trust, and a constant desire to grow and be better together offer an admirable view of what a relationship between two people who love each other should look like. One of the big subplots with these two is orphan adoption; a line stands out, one delivered by Phalue in relation to Ranami:

“But beneath that you have the strongest, most compassionate heart of anyone I’ve ever known. Any child would be lucky to feel a fraction of the love I know you’re capable of. We’ll figure this out together.”

Phalue continues to edge out her wife in my estimation. Something about the politics-weary governor who prefers to solve her issues directly rather than through subterfuge, clicks with me (and yes, I know how giddy I was a few paragraphs ago about the political elements of the novel, but I also love how upfront and honest Phalue is–I can have it both!!!):

“And this was what she hated about politics – the wheedling, the insinuations, the need to always be careful exactly what one was saying lest it be misinterpreted. Why couldn’t everyone just have their cards pinned to their shirts instead of holding them close to their chests?”

Isn’t that an admirable wish?

And How About the Antagonists?

Some familiar faces there; the main threat is courtesy of none other than fifth PoV character Sand, now going by a new name, one whose connotations complicates things considerably. Her play for the throne is a bitter tale of how much vengeance costs, and how little it offers in return – a good motif, well developed and delivered with poignancy.

Another antagonist or two run about, with clear and troubling implications for the final chapter in the trilogy; perhaps my favourite confrontation sees the coming out of the shadows of the leader of a certain criminal organization; I’d long awaited to see what that bloke was about…I was not disappointed.

PET COMPANIONS ARE THE BEST

Mephi and Thrana – need I say more?

“Maybe she just doesn’t care,” Mephi said, leaning against my knees.

Thrana piped up eagerly. “A bad? A very bad?”

“More like a strange,” I said.

“A strange,” Thrana cooed.

“No,” Lin broke in. “We don’t say it like that. We say the situation is strange. We don’t just label things as ‘a strange’.” She threw up her hands. “Oh, what does it matter?”

Complaints, I’ve Had a Few–But Then Again, Too Few To Mention

I didn’t particularly care about the romance – it was the one element about the novel that had a very “tried and tested” feel, and I could’ve done without it. Don’t mind it, don’t mean to disparage it if any of you shippers are reading this post, but I would be all too happy to see this romance develop better. There is an aspect I love of it, a particularly macabre one, but–I shan’t say what it is for fear of spoiling too much for those readers who haven’t yet read the series. You know who you are.

The Verdict

Is this sequel, and the series as a whole, worth your time? No question about it! This series appeals both to readers who like darker fantasy and those who enjoy the more hopeful stuff; it’s imaginative and original, and full of heart. Andrea Stewart is getting better and better at her craft–she already excelled out of the gate, yet improvement is undeniable. And the audiobook? Brilliant work, truly breathtaking. Natalie Naudus slays as Lin, Jovis is brought to life with such unmistakable charm by Feodor Chin, and Emily Woo Zeller is killer at delivering a slightly different reading of the three secondary PoV characters.

Marvelous work – let’s see how Stewart sticks the landing with The Bone Shard War!

*Lawrence’s Nona and Yaz, Joe Abercrombie’s Rikke, poor idiot boy FitzChivalry, Rob Hayes’s Eska, to name a few.

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