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THE BONE SHARD DAUGHTER
by ANDREA STEWART
“I was Lin. I was the Emperor’s daughter. And I would show him that even broken daughters could wield power.”
“The Bone Shard Daughter”, “The Drowning Empire”, Book 1, is Andrea Stewart’s highly accomplished debut novel. As with any such applauded book, sometimes it’s a tricky thing for the reader, such as myself, coming in with some preconceived notions that the book should live up to the accolades and hype surrounding it. Thankfully, I did truly enjoy this book, and I believe it has earned the laurels readers and critics alike have bestowed upon it. It was an amazing read.
If one is going to write a book with multiple POVs (assuming the characters are not immediately connected in some way), the most harrowing task is how to tie together sometimes disparate narratives at some point in the story so that they blend with some degree of harmony. Stewart did this exceptionally well with “The Bone Shard Daughter”, while leaving some tantalizing threads dangling where she did not put the different POV characters quite in each other’s orbit but set things up nicely for intriguing meetings in future installments.
The main POV in the book is that of Lin, daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, and the eponymous Bone Shard Daughter. Lin is haunted in her efforts to capture lost memories, and because she cannot remember properly, the Emperor qualifies her as “broken”, and not ready for escalating responsibilities until she can somehow recapture those memories.
The Emperor, Shiyen, has ruled for decades, virtually uncontested, but his rule has been brutally imposed through the use of an absolutely petrifying, eerie type of magic: using bone fragments from his subjects to propel macabre Frankenstein-like creatures, called “constructs”. These constructs are fabricated from bits and pieces of dead animals and humans, sewn together, and brought to life by the bone shards implanted in them.
The bone shards – which are forcibly taken from the Emperor’s citizens – are the equivalent of computer programs, as they are engraved commands that define the constructs’ behaviour: defining them as spies, guards, even military or economic advisors. The Emperor is the Frankenstein-like mad scientist, with the ruthless determination and skill to ensure he has sufficiently numerous and powerful constructs to keep the populous under heel.
Furthermore, removal of the bone shards from the citizens is a death sentence; either dying right away during the procedure as children, or slowly wasting away as adults when the constructs begin to fully animate and grow into their own. The Emperor rationalizes his brutal experiments and subjugation of his people in giving away their very lives, in that the presences of his constructs ensure a safe and orderly society. The old “for the greater good” argument.
Lin is supposed to be Shiyen’s heir, but Shiyen has adopted a foster ward, Bayan, and put Bayan in direct competition with Lin, seemingly to bring out the best in her abilities, and make her prove herself worthy to inherit the throne. The widowed, despotic Emperor is cold and emotionally distant from Lin, but as many children would, Lin still seeks affection and praise from her father, and sees her means to secure that affection and praise is to master control of her father’s constructs, demonstrating she is a worthy successor.
But Bayan is a capable adversary, and brilliant in his own right with learning mastery of the constructs. Lin feels compelled so seek out help from the common folk of the empire in her quest to inherit the throne and win her father’s approval, but this sets off a chain of events with disastrous consequences. Yet Lin is resolved to get the better of her father, and find out the real truth as to why her memories have been so challenging to recapture.
“I could have waited, one part of my mind told me. I could have been obedient; I could have done my best to answer my father’s questions, to heal my memories. But the other part of my mind was cold and sharp. It cut through the guilt to find a hard truth. I could never be what he wanted if I did not take what I wanted…. He’d not left me with any choice other than to show him I was worthy in a different way.”
I found the other POVs to be just as transfixing as Lin’s, though it become obvious during the novel that Lin’s fate is central to the fate of the other characters given agency to tell their own tales.
The second POV is that of Jovis. Jovis is a smuggler by trade, but he has a compassionate streak, and has been devoting – dangerously – his missions to saving children from the “Tithing Festivals” where youngsters are forced to give up their bone shards to power the Emperor’s constructs. Thus Jovis is a highly wanted fugitive from the Empire’s justice. Jovis is also searching for his long-lost wife, and is determined to find out what happened to her.
Phalue and Ranami’s POVs are intertwined. They are lovers, and Phalue, an aristocrat, warrior, and another daughter who is heir to her father’s titles, is beginning to have doubts, thanks to Ranami, as to whether Phalue’s father’s rule is just. Ranami, meanwhile, joins the underground resistance against the Emperor’s rule, the “Shardless Ones”, forcing Phalue to chose between love, her values, and her father.
Finally, Sand has the most obscure POV. She resides, with people like her, on the remote edges of the Empire, labouring hard in picking coconuts, without the ability to understand why their tasks are so important, how they got to their current location in the first place, or any memory of their past prior to arriving. The picking of the coconuts seems to be the only purpose Sand and her compatriots exist for, but Sand is determined to break through the fog of amnesia and discover her true identity.
Phenomenal world-building, a plot that builds to a fascinating crescendo, deft prose, and entrancing themes, Stewart has crafted an epic, groundbreaking, emotionally engaging fantasy, with deeply engrossing characters. I loved the magic, intrigue, love stories, and unsettling, unsettling bone shard magic. Revolt and rebellion against authority has always been a fascination of mine: why people do it, how and if they succeed, whether or not they can put a better system in place in the aftermath than the previous one, or if it’s just more of the same, under a different guise.
Also just as riveting for me were the themes explored by Stewart surrounding privilege, obligation, classism, and what makes a good ruler. Finally, the aspects of what defines memory, knowledge, identity, and how they equate to power and self-determination, was very absorbing as well.
Overall, “The Bone Shard Daughter” is an intricate, thoughtful, and very memorable novel that deserves to be considered as one of the top fantasy books written in the past while. Awe-inspiring, highly recommended, and please, bring on Book 2, “The Bone Shard Emperor!” Five plus very glowing out of five stars!