Book Review: The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: Book 1 of The Drowning Empire
Publisher: Orbit (September 8, 2020)
Length: 448 pages
I haven’t had such a satisfying read in a long time. The fantasy debut of Andrea Stewart, The Bone Shard Daughter simply struck all the right chords for me—natural and easy to fall into, but neither uncomplicated or too predictable. I loved the story and the setting and the characters in equal measure, and I honestly can’t remember the last book that ensnared me so thoroughly.
Lightly inspired by Asian culture, this opener to the Drowning Empire trilogy follows the perspectives of a group of disparate characters all trying to make their way through a world made up of innumerable floating, shifting islands. Together, they make up the broader narrative of an empire in transition, of an empire teetering on the verge of great change.
First, we meet Lin, the heir to the throne of the Phoenix Empire who must prove to her father that she is worthy of succeeding him one day. Frustratingly though, he won’t teach her his bone shard magic, a powerful force that controls the creature constructs that enforce the law and order of the land. But as the emperor’s rule fails, so too does his influence, leaving the empire exposed to attacks and uprisings, and Lin vulnerable to challenges from her adopted brother and rival, Bayan. Trapped behind the walls of the palace, she is driven to take matters into her own hands, knowing full well the consequences if she is discovered.
Next, we have Phalue, a warrior and the privileged daughter of the governor of one of the larger, influential islands. When her girlfriend Ranami becomes involved as a leader in a rebel group fighting on behalf of the island’s poverty-stricken farmers, Phalue’s life is thrown into uncertainty as her loyalties are torn between love and duty.
Then we have Jovis, a wily smuggler who has gotten out of more scrapes than he can count. With a bounty on his head from almost every major island in the Endless Sea, his name is legendary among those who require his services, but very few are aware that what drives him is his own personal quest: the search for his beloved wife Emahla, who disappeared years ago along with the ship that carried her, marked by its distinctive blue sails. However, Jovis unwittingly draws even more attention to himself after he saves a child from their tithing ceremony, a process in which a piece of bone shard is taken from a very young person’s skull to fuel a construct. Soon, he is besieged with requests from other parents hoping to spare their sons and daughters from the monstrous tradition, and what’s even more vexing, he suddenly finds himself saddled with a tiny mysterious creature he rescues from the sea, a companion he later names Mephi.
And finally, on a lonely isle at the edge of the empire, a woman named Sand experiences a life-changing moment. One day, while harvesting mangoes, she falls from the trees, unlocking memories that seem to come from another life. It shouldn’t be possible, but it does make Sand start to wonder, maybe she hasn’t always been who she thinks she is.
In a word, reading The Bone Shard Daughter was simply breathtaking. There were many things I loved about it, so I’ll just go through the highlights. First of all, the world-building—I am absolutely floored. From the floating islands of the empire to power of bone shard magic, I was utterly enchanted and blown away by the ideas in this book. I could hardly believe the level of detail either, yet Stewart somehow always manages to rein it in just enough so that it doesn’t become an overwhelming deluge of information.
And then we have the characters. I’m sure everyone who has read The Bone Shard Daughter will have their personal favorite, and mine was, without a doubt, Jovis. I swear I could read an entire book just about him and Mephi, sailing the Endless Sea. That said, the other characters were also great, and I liked how each POV contained a hook—something unique that you couldn’t find in any of the others. Lin had her workings with bone shard magic, for example, while Phalue and Ranami had their rebel shenanigans. Even as the character threads gradually came together and intermingled, each perspective maintained its own style and tonal differences so that there was never any confusion. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that some POVs were written in first-person while others were written in third, and you’d think this would make a huge mess of things, but surprisingly, that was not the case at all.
In terms of criticisms, I really don’t have too many. Admittedly though, I might have bristled a bit at the dynamic between Phalue and Ranami because I despise one-sided relationships, and as their story gradually unfolded, it was hard not to see the emotional manipulation creeping in. Needless to say, the Phalue/Ranami chapters were probably my least favorite, not to mention how the “lovers on opposite sides of a conflict” storyline is a theme that has been done to death, and I didn’t particularly enjoy how their relationship and many elements of the class war were watered-down and contrived. There were also other instances scattered across the novel where I felt things might have worked out just a little too neatly, too conveniently, but thankfully there were many more intriguing aspects of the plot that kept me interested and curious.
All in all, I just have to give The Bone Shard Daughter massive praise and credit. The hype is real, folks, and I heartily recommend this novel to any fantasy fan who craves great storytelling and originality in world-building. Can’t wait for the next book.