- The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1).
- Andrea Stewart.
- 448 pages.
- Epic Fantasy.
- My Rating: Hellyeah Book Review.
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.
I received a free copy of this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
From his isolated palace on Imperial Island, Emperor Sukai rules using his mastery of bone shard magic. Bone shard magic is a dark and forbidden magic that is used by the Emperor to create and power constructs that maintain law and order, protecting and serving both himself as the Emperor and the empire. Centuries ago, the Emperor’s ancestors used their understanding of bone shard magic to conquer the islands original inhabitants, the Alanga, defeating them in battle and taking control of the islands. The only remnants of the Alanga now, are ancient artefacts and ruins, some that are awakening. For as long as the Sukai have ruled over the islands there have been murmurings, whispers carried on the winds that, one day the Alanga will return to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Along with the fear that his constructs inspire across the empire the Emperor uses that dread, that fear that the Alanga will return to support his reign as he is the only person who has mastered bone shard magic. Thus, he is the only person who can safely defend and protect the people and the empire, his empire.
Since the death of his wife many years ago the Emperor has become a recluse, closing off the palace to everyone living and concealing himself away. Instead of serving the people, the Emperor is an unseen figurehead who spends all of his time building constructs and experimenting locked away below, deep in the bowels of the palace. While he is hidden away his four most powerful constructs (Construct of Bureaucracy, of Spies, of Trade and, of War) rule the empire by proxy, enacting his will, issuing his orders and governing in his place.
To the Emperor the only life that matters, that is worth something is his own, placed above all others. He doesn’t care about his subjects, the citizens of the Empire. He doesn’t see them as people, only as a commodity. Their only worth to him is in the service that they provide, as a power source. Their only value in the bone shard that is taken from them when they come of age. When each citizen turns eight-years-old they are required to attend the compulsory and yearly Tithing Ceremony that takes place on each island. At the ceremony, a shard of bone is removed from them and then stored, awaiting the time when it will be needed and used by the Emperor to help power one of his created constructs.
Lin Sukai is the Emperor’s daughter. A few years ago the Emperor returned from a journey to one of the outer islands with Bayan, his new foster-son. On his arrival upon Imperial island, Bayan infected Lin with a sickness that erased her memories. The illness afflicted them both. But, Bayan has since recovered more of his memories and his past than Lin has been able to. Lin only remembers the last few years of her life and anything before that is a complete blank. Where there should be a life lived, a life remembered, there is nothing, only an empty page. Bayan and Lin are rivals and the Emperor plays them off against each other as the pair battle to be named as his heir. Even though she is his blood, the Emperor won’t acknowledge Lin as his heir because she can’t remember her past, the time and the years that have been lost to her. To him, she isn’t whole. She doesn’t know who she was and only who she is, who she has become since she awakened without a memory. Lin yearns to be seen as the Emperor’s daughter and not as a broken thing. She craves his approval, his respect and, hopefully, his love too. Lin has lived a sheltered life, confined, a prisoner behind the walls of the palace and is rarely allowed out. Like the secrets that are hidden behind the locked doors in the myriad rooms of the palace, she is also kept locked away.
Taken into the Emperor’s confidence and under his tutelage, Bayan has been learning the secrets of the empire, of bone shard magic and how to make constructs. To the Emperor, Lin is broken and damaged. With no memory, she can’t be trusted and, unless she remembers her past he won’t teach her the secrets of bone shard magic. To open the locked doors of the palace Lin will need to earn keys, keys that open the doors of the rooms and keys, that are given by her father as rewards in the competition for his favour between her and Bayan. But, displeased with her progress and adamant that unless she remembers, the Emperor won’t give her any more. Like her memory, they are out of her reach. Denied the secrets of bone shard magic and against her father’s will, Lin’s only choice is to search for them herself. To prove herself Lin must stealthily traverse the corridors, the passageways of the palace avoiding Bayan, the constructs that roam and the baleful all-seeing eyes of the Emperor. She must find her own way, no matter the cost of unlocking the doors and unlocking the secrets hidden within. Secrets of the bone shard magic and, the secrets, the truth of who she is too. As she teaches herself how to perform bone shard magic Lin plays a dangerous game. A game that, should she be caught will have deadly consequences for her and any who may help her.
On Nephilanu island, Phalue is the Governor’s daughter and comes from nobility and wealth. The governor spends all his time drinking and partying and doesn’t worry about the island’s inhabitants as long as they pay their taxes and fund his excessive lifestyle. Ranami is common, low-born and comes from poverty. She is from the streets and was a gutter orphan until she pulled herself out of the gutters and made a meagre life for herself. Phalue’s mother was low-born. After her divorce from the governor, she returned to the low-class area of the island. Phalue would visit her and, on one visit Phalue noticed Ranami. Even though they are from different worlds and divided by their social class they found a connection and became a couple. Poverty and sickness are rife on the island. Phalue does her bit, helping out and giving money when she can, small acts of kindness in a sea of suffering. But, it’s not enough. Ranami wants her to open her eyes, to look beyond, to see the other side, the fractured society, the pain, the hardship, the injustice and the inequality that is widespread amongst the poor not just on Nephilanu island. But, that is rampant across the whole empire.
Unbeknownst to Phalue, Ranami is part of the Shardless Few, the rebel movement that is growing, gaining traction and, whose influence is spreading. Discontent is sweeping the islands and the Emperor’s grasp on his empire is loosening, his once firm hold weakening. On Nephilanu island the flames are being stoked, the tides are turning, it is time to stand up, time for a change and the rebellion will take hold.
Jovis is a former Imperial navigator turned smuggler who is wanted by both the Empire and the Ioph Carn, a criminal organisation to who he owes a debt. Jovis is desperately searching for his missing wife. Several years ago, Emahla, his wife vanished. One morning when Jovis awoke she was simply gone with coins left in her place. Since that fateful morning, he has spent the intervening years searching for her. The only clue that he has, that he has followed, on the morning of her disappearance he saw a boat on the horizon, glimpsed through the mist, a boat with blue-sails. Jovis has lived with the grief, the loss of Emahla his constant companion. The hope that one day he will find her is the driving force behind him. The only thing that, in a sea of grief and sorrow keeps him from drowning, the belief, that she is somewhere out there and they will be reunited.
Following the latest in a long line of leads, a sighting of the mysterious blue-sailed boat and, hoping that it isn’t another dead end Jovis is on one of the islands of the Empire. Always in need of coin to help pay off his debt to the Ioph Carn and to fund his search for Emahla while there he takes on a job. The job, to rescue a child from the Tithing Festival before they can have a bone shard taken from them. After the rescue, as Jovis and the young boy are escaping the island starts sinking into the Endless Sea.
Word soon spreads about the survivors and, about his deed, making him a reluctant folk hero amongst the people. Songs are sung and his legend starts to grow with many other parents wanting him to save their children from the festival too. Jovis ends up on Nephilanu Island and, soon gets caught up in the rebellion that, like a coming storm is on the horizon. The Shardless Few have information about the blue-sailed boat, its location and, if Jovis helps them they will tell him what they know. Jovis isn’t selfish. He is a smuggler with a heart who cares more than he should and who helps those in need. He knows that each day that he is doing something else instead of searching for Emahla is another day of the blue-sailed boat getting further and further away and the trail going cold. But, he can’t just turn, leave and go off on his own when he can help and when he can be part of something far larger than his own personal quest.
Trapped on the remote Maila Isle at the outer edge of the Empire Sand spends her days repeating the same task over and over again. Stuck in a loop, each day for Sand consists of the same routine, picking mangoes, going from the village to the mango grove and back again. Sand isn’t alone, each of the other villagers on the island has their own task that they do daily too. This is how it has always been, for all of them, there is no before, no after and they can’t remember anything else. One day whilst picking mangoes Sand falls, in pain, clarity comes, an awakening, a spark of recognition that jolts her memory free that breaks the endless routine.
Bone shard magic is a fascinating concept. The Frankenstein-esque constructs that are created by the Emperor are made using various parts of dead animals that are assembled, pieced together to form a creature and brought to life by the power of the bone shards. Before they are placed inside the construct, symbols are carved, etched onto each bone shard as functions, instructions for the constructs to obey. Each construct is made for a specific job, some are simple and rudimentary creations that have limited commands to follow and require only one or two shards to give them life. While others are far more complex creations with many advanced commands to follow that need far more shards to program and bring them to life.
For me, in fantasy, magic should always come with consequences, a cost and a price that has to be paid for its usage. In The Bone Shard Daughter, it isn’t the Emperor who has to pay the cost for wielding the bone shard magic that he uses, it is the citizens of the empire. When a bone shard is in use, over time the person who the shard was taken from will start to become shard-sick. It is a gradual decline as the construct drains their life force. Leaching, withering and shortening their life as the shard takes away their days and time to give life to and power the construct.
There are depth and history to the world and the Asian-inspired setting that Stewart has created. The Alanga, the bone shard magic, the wet and dry seasons that last for years and the migrating islands that form the empire and are sinking into the Endless Sea. But, also, Stewart has only just scratched the surface on certain aspects laying down the foundations for what is still to come. Honestly, The Bone Shard Daughter is the first book in The Drowning Empire trilogy and by the end, we shouldn’t know everything. We want to be enticed with glimmers, glimpses and the prospect of more to be revealed, and, we want to be intrigued by mysteries still to be solved and further discoveries to be made in the future books in the trilogy.
The layered, rich and sweeping story of forbidden magic, identity, how much a life is worth, rebellion and an empire on the precipice in The Bone Shard Daughter is character-driven, perfectly paced and full of emotion, mystery, suspense and tension with revelations that crash like waves against the shore. It is not action-packed, but what action there is, is added to augment and bolster the story. The story is told through five POV characters. Lin and Jovis who are written in the first-person and then, Phalue, Ranami and Sand who are all written in the third-person. The characters, even the secondary ones aren’t outlines and pencil sketches. They are fully-drawn, shaded and well-developed. Coming from a variety of social backgrounds they are diverse, engaging and all have their own flaws, strengths, weaknesses and personalities. You will feel a connection to them, an emotional undertow that takes you unawares, attaching you to Lin, to Jovis, to Phalue and Ranami and that makes you care about them and about what happens to them on their journeys.
The only exception to this is Sand and this is on purpose by Stewart. Sand, while a POV character has far less page time than the others. In essence, she is a secondary and completely detached character to the main events of this chapter in the unfolding story. For the most, she remains an enigma, a vague shadow that is becoming clearer and her story is just beginning. While she only has a small role in The Bone Shard Daughter I am sure that she will have a huge impact and a far larger role in the upcoming books in the trilogy. Trust me, I have read The Bone Shard Daughter and I know the revelations that are revealed to the reader. 😉
One thing that I have a soft spot for in books are animal companions, especially those with their own personality, and those who have a role to play in the story. During the escape from the sinking island where Jovis saves the young boy from the Tithing Festival, he rescues a bedraggled and sodden creature from the sea. Initially, Jovis is unwilling to keep the creature, he saved him for the boy, not for himself. But, the creature, named Mephi wants to stay with Jovis and Jovis reluctantly keeps him. Over the course of their adventure together Mephi gives Jovis something to care about and we see Jovis and Mephi develop a very touching and magical bond. The mystical Mephi is a wonder who flourishes in his role, lighting up the page, shining whenever he appears and is an absolute joy to behold. Mephi will worm his way into your affections and set up home in your heart.
The Bone Shard Daughter is beautifully written with clear, crisp and descriptive writing that embraces you, taking hold and pulling you in. You are captivated, finding yourself immersed in the darkly enchanting, epic and vivid watercolour that Stewart is creating, that she is painting with her words that flow, that glide like brush strokes upon the page.
I have no ending hook to finish my review with, no clever phrasing and no words left. Simply, The Bone Shard Daughter ranks highly as one of the best debuts I’ve read and it is a remarkable example of modern fantasy at its finest.
Pre-order The Bone Shard Daughter (The Drowning Empire #1) by Andrea Stewart released September 10th, 2020.
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