ARC provided by the publisher—Orbit—in exchange for an honest review.
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Drowning Empire (Book #1 of 3)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Mystery
Pages: 448 pages (UK hardcover edition)
Published: 10th September 2020 by Orbit (UK) & 8th September 2020 by Orbit (US)
This will most likely be my favorite fantasy debut of 2020.
Honestly speaking, The Bone Shard Daughter was not on my radar despite people’s excitement on Twitter—where I found out about this book—back when the acquisition was first announced. Some of you may know this already, but my interest to read a book—without any review from someone I trust—by a new author whose work I haven’t read before depends solely on the cover art of the debut, and thankfully, the gorgeous cover art by Sasha Vinogradova revealed last month did grab my attention. As for the content of the book, let’s just say there are many good reasons why Andrea Stewart earned a six-figure deal for this trilogy.
The Bone Shard Daughter is the first book in The Drowning Empire trilogy by Andrea Stewart. The story takes place in an empire consisting of many islands. On these islands, the bone shard magic wielded by the emperor fuels monstrous constructs that enforce law and order. For decades the emperor has reigned, but now his rule is failing, whispers of revolution travel across the Empire’s islands. One of the main characters, Lin, is the emperor’s daughter and heir who spent her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and secrets; she’s doing everything she can to earn the respect plus approval of his father by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic. At the same time, she also must uncover the secrets behind her fractured memories. Revolution, justice, identity, love, and family are some of the main themes in this book, and Stewart executed these themes magnificently through her wonderful cast of diverse characters.
“The days we’d spent swimming and fishing at the beach, the first time I’d kissed her, the dreams we’d shared – I was now the only keeper of these memories, and that was the truest sort of loneliness. There were so many things I still wanted to tell her, to share with her.”
I feel that lately, with new SFF releases, it’s getting harder for me to find a debut that utilized more than three or four POV characters; Stewart uses five POV here, and she exacted a relatively unique storytelling style to it. Two of the main POV characters—Lin and Jovis—are written through a first-person perspective, while the other two main POV—Phalue & Ranami—and one side POV characters—Sand—are written in third person perspectives. This type of narrative decision typically has a chance of backfiring miserably, but that’s simply not the case with Stewart’s debut. The constant changes between the first-person and third-person POV chapters enhanced the distinctive strength of the character’s voices. Not only all of the main characters came from a different background, but all of them were also carefully developed and characterized throughout this novel that’s infused with splendid pacing.
Lin, as I mentioned before, is the daughter of the Emperor. Although Lin’s story felt separated from all the other POV characters for almost the entirety of the book, her story was the most gripping as it is full of espionage and mysteries that kept me immersed and guessing thoroughly. Seriously, when I thought I had everything figured out—and to be fair, I did predict a lot of the revelations—Stewart blindsided me with an unpredictable stab that made me went “alright, I didn’t see that one coming. This is surprisingly twisted. I love it.” Lin was one of the two main characters who attained the most spotlights, the other one being Jovis, a smuggler who survived the drowning of Deerisland and is now searching for his lover. In his journey, quite early at the beginning, Jovis met a mysterious fox with a magical power—Mephis. The relationship development between Jovis and Mephis was one of my favorite parts of the book; I have always been a fan of animal companion in SFF or any kind of story, and I feel that Stewart has done a terrific job in building their relationship.
“Little by little, he’d become more than just an animal, but a companion he couldn’t see himself being parted from.”
I would like to also praise Stewart on her achievement in writing Phalue and Ranami’s relationship. Phalue and Ranami did receive less spotlight compared to Lin and Jovis, but this doesn’t mean their POV chapters weren’t interesting to read; their relationship and disputes still felt genuine and believable. Whether we like it or not, social status does affect romantic relationships in real life, and I personally think that Stewart captured the difficulty of being in this kind relationship incredibly well. Do note that The Bone Shard Daughter isn’t a romance-heavy book; Phalue and Ranami’s relationship was effectively used to discuss elaborate the hardship that arises from being in poverty and wealth. The differences in their background caused differences in perspectives, and despite how much they loved each other, it is bloody challenging to truly understand what the other person is going through unless you live in their shoes. This applies to both sides, it’s not only the poor who has troubles in their life, the wealthy one just faced a different kind of problem that can be equally deadly, and this balance is what made Stewart’s take on this conflict better than usual.
“It’s hard to remake one’s view of the world, to admit to complacency. I thought remaking myself for you was hard enough, but doing that was something I wanted. I didn’t want to realize how much I’ve hurt the people around me, and that’s what confronting my beliefs meant. We all tell ourselves stories of who we are, and in my mind, I was always the hero. But I wasn’t. Not in all the ways I should have been.”
I loved learning more about the constructs—built from parts of dead animals—and the bone shard magic involved to reanimate them; I found the act of imbuing commands into these constructs and the repercussion of failing to be fascinating. The bone shard magic actually reminded me of scriving—inserting commands to inanimate objects—from another series I loved: The Founders Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett. Excluding Lin’s POV that has a large focus on these bone shard magic and constructs, things are moderately light on the high-fantasy world-building scale—for now anyway—but it’s undoubtedly is one. The mystery behind how The Endless Sea swallowed islands that were shown at the beginning of the book remains an unsolved mystery. The Drowning Empire is an apt series name, and I do believe we’ll learn more about this phenomenon and the Alanga in the sequels. It helps a lot that Stewart’s prose felt clean, well-polished, and comfortable to read. There were no curses, cussing, and there weren’t many gory scenes; even action sequences were relatively scarce. However, Stewart was able to keep the tension and emotion in each scene intact through her engaging dialogues, descriptions, and writings that conjured vivid imagery. Try taking a read at the first chapter of the free excerpt provided; to me, it was like seeing the characters move and speak right in front of my eyes. Also, if the first chapter isn’t obvious enough, this is clearly an Asian-inspired fantasy. The first chapter that introduced a ridiculously high expectation scene set by Lin’s father is pretty much how every Asian parent behaves; as an Asian, I can confirm this.
“One foolish choice is like a rat you let go. It will spawn more consequences than you first thought possible.”
“A very good” is what Mephis would definitely say regarding the quality of this debut. I certainly enjoyed it very much. The ending ended satisfyingly—there’s no cliffhanger—and it still left me excited to read the sequel as soon as I can, despite this book being fourth months away from its official publication. I have been a fan of books published by Orbit for the past three years now. In fact, I do think that they’re the best SFF publisher for newer releases at the moment, and The Bone Shard Daughter is the recent addition to their catalog of stunning quality. Here’s a list of my favorite debuts both written and read in the past three years: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames in 2017, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang in 2018, The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan in 2019; other than The Poppy War, all of these books are published by Orbit. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart will be the best fantasy debut of 2020. Don’t miss it.
The UK hardback edition of The Bone Shard Daughter is cheaply priced at $15 on Book Depository right now. For comparison, that’s the same price as its US Kindle edition. I suggest pre-ordering this book NOW. The link is down below.
Official release date: 10th September 2020 (UK) and 8th September 2020 (US)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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