Book Review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

Book Review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart, the first book in the fantasy Drowning Empire series

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart, the first book in the Drowning Empire seriesTitle: The Bone Shard Daughter

Author: Andrea Stewart

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: September 8, 2020

Genre: Fantasy

Summary: In a world comprised of islands ruled by a reclusive Emperor with a daughter no one has seen since she was young, where the Emperor’s constructs run everything on each island, there are those who are restless, who would bring change to the Empire. At the age of eight, every child goes through the Tithing Festival and has a chip of bone taken from their skull to be stored in the palace until it’s needed to power a construct. Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, is determined to be named heir, doing everything in her power to learn how to code the constructs. Not everyone is happy about it, though, and will do everything in their power to bring down the Empire.

Growing up with a moderately traditional Chinese father meant our home was decorated with large decorative fans, wall hangings with Chinese characters, strange statues of supposedly heroic figures in Chinese history, and beautiful pillowcases embroidered with scenes featuring mountains, countless stairs, delicate pagodas, scraggly trees, and wisps of fog. They were haunting. Eerie. Forbidding. Magical. I felt the exact same way while reading The Bone Shard Daughter. It was haunting and eerie, especially with the strange Alanga relics that had small, but powerful roles. It was magical, but made me want to jump out of my skin sometimes, especially while reading on my Kindle in the dark. It didn’t necessarily feel lyrical, but it did transport me into this fantastical world, and I sometimes feared I wouldn’t be able to get out.

The Plot: Slow, but Carefully Crafted

The Bone Shard Daughter can best be summed up as everyone against the Emperor because he literally uses his people’s life forces to power his constructs and protect everyone from the Alanga, who haven’t been seen in generations.

There’s his daughter, Lin, who was struck with an illness when her father adopted a son, Bayan, who she now competes against in a race to regain memories and gain keys to all the locked doors in the palace. Secrets are around every turn and danger lurks in the shadows. There’s no love lost between Lin and Bayan as their father turns them against each other, but Lin is desperate for approval, to be named heir as the Emperor’s sole blood child. She’ll do anything to learn the secrets, to prove herself worthy.

Jovis travels the islands as a smuggler while hunting down information about a ship with blue sails. His wife vanished on it 7 years ago and he’s desperate to get her back. When an island mysteriously and abruptly sinks, he saves a little boy and a kitten-like creature, Mephi, which earns him both a new, unwanted job of rescuing children from the Tithing Festival for a fee and a new friend who bestows incredible powers, powers the Shardless Few want to use for their own ends.

Phalue is a governor’s daughter and thinks she knows her common born girlfriend’s problems with the governor and how the island is governed. But, Ranami doesn’t believe she does. When Ranami gets both of them up in above their heads with the Shardless Few, more than a few revelations are made, and more than a few changes are in order.

Finally, Sand just wants to collect as many mangoes as she can, as is required of her, until she falls, injures herself, and starts to see shards of a past she can barely grasp. Now she just wants to get rid of the fog she and countless others are stuck in and get off the island.

There’s so much to this book, so many story lines. At first, it was a little difficult to figure out what they had in common, how they could possibly converge. For almost half the book I felt a bit out to sea, and it was slow going. I liked their individual journeys, but it was a bit boring and tedious. Finally, when everything started to come together, it really came together. Realizations exploded in my head and I couldn’t read the second half fast enough. It was creepy and eerie and made my skin crawl, but every word of it was delicious. It’s a carefully balanced story of those who would keep things as they are and those who seek revolution while also subtly pointing to danger just around the corner.

The Characters: Very Human

The characters were really the stars of the book. They propelled the story forward, made things happen with their choices. They were human, so they didn’t always make the right choices, didn’t always think things through. Each had their own motivations even when their threads became twisted with another’s. I liked that Lin was desperate to get what she wanted, so desperate that she made mistakes that just made the story leap forward. I loved the conflict in Jovis’s heart, and the idea that his loyalties are torn, or maybe he has none. The ambiguity about him at the end was absolutely perfect. Ranami made my heart ache as she was so desperate for one thing that she became blinded to several facts that would make her innocence apparent.

Most of all, I adored the relationships. The ones in the palace were fascinatingly dysfunctional, which turned out to be even more dysfunctional by the end. It was bizarre, but, bizarrely, it all worked. The one that stole my heart, though, was between Jovis and Mephi. I loved Mephi so much I wanted to reach into the book and pull him out so he could be my friend. I’m dying to know exactly what he is, but I have my suspicions. The one disappointment I had was that between Phalue and Ranami. I liked it, appreciated it, but it also felt thrown in and not as developed as the other relationships. Or maybe the story was just so massive, so long, that there wasn’t enough space to fully develop it. Even the one between Lin and the blacksmith she forced into making keys for her had depth and feeling in it. The one between Phalue and Ranami felt shallow compared to every other relationship, almost as though there wasn’t any real feeling behind it even though they tried hard.

The Setting: Out to Sea

The world is comprised of islands that float around. Each island has its place in the dance. Since I have an e-ARC, I don’t have the world map, which was disappointing because, in my mind, it’s fabulous. I loved the tropical nature, the division between the dry and wet years. Each island was much like the others, but had some subtle differences. Since it’s an empire of islands, though, it really showcased both what unified them into an empire, and divided them from the empire.

Then there’s the palace. It was kind of creepy as the family consists of only three people. The rest of the palace has a whole bunch of weird constructs and some servants who skedaddle as soon as someone appears. It felt so empty and quiet, almost as though no one actually lived there. The weirdest part was the locked doors. It was fun to explore what was behind them with Lin, but also made me feel like my heart was going to jump into my throat because there was no telling what she would find.

Overall: Beautifully, Eerily Fascinating

First of all, Mephi made the book for me. I was so taken by him that, even if the story had been terrible, I would have kept reading only for him. Fortunately, the story was beautifully, weirdly fascinating. The world was well-thought out, the characters were likable even when they weren’t, and the converging story lines really made things interesting. Overall, a haunting story with a great deal of potential to be something massive, yet compelling.

Great if you enjoy: fantasy, strong world building, multiple story lines, strong character development, world intrigue and politics, secrets, character-driven stories

Not great if you’re looking for: strong magic systems, straightforward plots, fast-paced and action-packed stories, glittering royal courts and royalty, quick reads

How many cups of tea will you need?

5 cups should do nicely

Get your copy (The Lily Cafe is NOT an Amazon affiliate)

Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit for a free e-ARC. All opinions expressed are my own.

Head over to the Bookshelf to check out my reviews of books from the Big 5 and self-published, indie, and small press books.

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