Book Review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart Is A Lovingly Constructed Fantasy Debut
The Bone Shard Daughter is the debut fantasy novel by Andrea Stewart. The novel kicks off a new trilogy called The Drowning Empire, set in an epic fantasy world where bone magic powers monstrous constructs. The Empire is failing. Rebellions are rising up to protest the deadly bone shard magic that sucks the life from its citizens. The Emperor himself spends his days locked away behind closed doors, conducting mysterious magical experiments. And the Emperor’s daughter Lin has been forbidden the magic that is her birthright.
The Bone Shard Daughter is a fascinating debut novel from Andrea Stewart, with a unique world and magical systems. Let’s take a look at The Bone Shard Daughter, the first book in The Drowning Empire trilogy by Andrea Stewart.
Image via Orbit Books
Book Review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
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.
The Bone Shard Daughter has multiple interwoven narratives from several different protagonists. First there is the character of Lin, the Emperor’s daughter who cannot remember her own past. Lin is intelligent, determined, and ambitious. She struggles to prove herself to her father, and to remember her own life.
Lin spends much of the book in the large palace that houses only herself, her foster brother who competes with her for the title of heir, and her domineering father. Outside of a few servants, everyone else who inhabits the palace is a construct created by her father’s bone shard magic. These constructs are described as monstrous creatures who have been assembled out of various animal parts. But Lin soon discovers that the constructs are not as mindless as they first appear, and she figures out how to utilize them in her quest to master the bone shard magic that has been forbidden to her.
An Ensemble Cast Adds Depth To The World of The Bone Shard Daughter
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In contrast to Lin is the character of Jovis, a smuggler who is searching for his long lost love. Jovis is clever and brash. He is highly empathetic, although he struggles to remain aloof and distant from the problems plaguing the Empire. His story opens on the day of the bone shard ritual. All children across the Empire must undergo this ritual that removes a shard of bone from their bodies. These shards power the Emperor’s monstrous constructs. When Jovis smuggles out a child from the ritual, he finds himself inevitably drawn into the political drama.
Then there is Phalue, the daughter of one of the Empire’s many governors. Phalue has lived a life of privilege in her father’s mansion. Far from a stereotypical princess character, Phalue is a fighter who is more comfortable in armor than in silk. She is not blind to the poverty that runs rampant in the city her father governs, but she has been indoctrinated in the Imperial mindset. Her political views begin to shift when she discovers her lover Ranami is in deep with the Shardless Few, the rebels that seek to overthrow the Empire and put an end to the bone shard magic.
There is another protagonist who gets a few POV chapters throughout the book, a character by the name of Sand. A young woman living on a remote island who begins to remember a life that seems impossible. Everyone on the island lives in a sort of fog. They go through their daily routine with no knowledge of who they are, or how they ended up on the island. When Sand begins to recall these memories, she sets out to find a way off of the island, and figure out who she truly is.
Photo by Andrzej Suwara Via Unsplash
With The Bone Shard Daughter, author Andrea Stewart has created a complex fantasy world unlike any of her contemporaries. Stewart is Chinese-American and has spoken openly about the influence of her heritage on her work. During the Comic-Con at home panel for Orbit Books, Stewart mentioned that she intentionally designed the character of Jovis to be a Southeast Asian heartthrob, as there are so few of them in genre fiction. The world geography also feels distinctly Asian, with migratory floating islands on a vast sea. The island-based world is reminiscent of one of Stewart’s early influences: the Earthsea cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin.
In an interview, Stewart said that she is “forever fascinated by the adaptability of humans. The islands migrate, keeping the inhabitants trapped in one season or another for a number of years and making navigation a matter of very complicated charts and equations.”
The Bone Shard Daughter also teases a deeper mystery around the ancient magical people known as the Alanga. This race of beings are described as having godlike powers that can control elemental forces. According to the book’s lore, the empire established by Lin’s ancestors was a direct response to the Alanga, to prevent them from returning to the world. The bone shard magic and the numerous constructs were allegedly designed to keep the Alanga at bay. This mystery at the heart of the story will certainly come into play in later books.
Character Relationships Are The Heart of the Story
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Stewart has developed a complex world for her characters to inhabit. But it is the relationships between the characters that really drive the story forward. Lin is clearly isolated and seeks to make connections wherever she can find them. She finds an uneasy ally in her foster brother Bayan. She befriends the character of Numeen; a locksmith who assists her in her quest to unlock her father’s secrets. And the more she gets to know other people, the more she can see the damage that her father has caused.
Jovis is driven by grief over the loss of his wife. His love for her has become torturous, as he has spent years searching for her to no avail. He develops some connections with other characters in the book. But his most important relationship is with the magical creature Mephi. After saving the creature from drowning, Jovis finds himself caring for someone other than himself. The mystery around Mephi – and what kind of creature he is – will certainly be explored in later books of The Drowning Empire.
The most important relationship in The Bone Shard Daughter is arguably that between Phalue and Ranami. Their relationship is already established before the novel begins. The fierce love between the two women will change both of their worlds. It is also refreshing to see a fantasy world where misogyny and homophobia are not built into the society. The tension between Phalue and Ranami come down to class difference. One was raised as a noble while the other struggled to scrape by on the impoverished streets of the Empire. These issues feel real and true to life, and allows for readers to connect to the characters on a fundamental level.
The Bone Shard Daughter Is An Excellent Start To A New Fantasy Trilogy
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With well-drawn characters and a fascinating world to explore, The Bone Shard Daughter is an exciting debut novel from Andrea Stewart. The underlying mystery of the world history and magic is rife for exploration. The first book tells an excellent story of characters who are struggling to find their place in the world. The characters struggle with their own identities in ways that feel entirely human and relatable. The magic may feel alien at times, with some horrific imagery. But that makes the beauty of the world all the more vital to the story.
The politics of the book also feel both timely and timeless. In an interview, Stewart expanded on the idea of a tyrannical and negligent government faced with a revolution from the powerless.
“While I don’t think fantasy has to hold a mirror up to real world issues, I think it’s an excellent medium for doing so. There are so many possibilities available to us in fantasy that I think it can allow writers to cast a different light on issues or to explore different aspects of them. Aspects that people might not normally think of. There’s a rhythm to stories that we don’t have in the real world. Stories circle back. Stories make sense even when exploring senselessness. There’s safety in that–and it can lower defenses we might otherwise have and make real world issues feel less overwhelming.”
Emily O'Donnell is a writer and photographer with roots in some of the earliest online fandoms. She cut her genre teeth on the Wizard of Oz books at the tender age of 6 years old, and was reading epic adult fantasy novels by the age of 10. Decades later, she still consumes genre fiction like there is no tomorrow. She is delighted to be living through the golden age of sci-fi and fantasy popularity. She is unashamed of the amount of fanfiction that still lingers online under her name.