Book Reviews, Fantasy

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Sukai Dynasty has ruled the Phoenix Empire for over a century, their mastery of bone shard magic powering the monstrous constructs that maintain law and order. But now the emperor’s rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands. Lin is the Emperor’s daughter, but a mysterious illness has stolen her childhood memories and her status as heir to the empire. Trapped in a palace of locked doors and old secrets, Lin vows to reclaim her birthright by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.

The short version of this review is that this is a fantastic debut and a truly fresh voice in the fantasy genre, but stick around if you want to find out why! The above blurb doesn’t do the story justice, in my opinion, but it’s a good basis from which to start…

The map of the Phoenix Empire


The world of The Bone Shard Daughter is a collection of floating islands that move through what is known as the Endless Sea, and they pass through dry seasons and wet seasons that last several years each, affecting crops, sailing, and business. Once I realised that the islands actually floated it somehow blew the whole world wide open for me, and I found it an incredibly effective device for world building. It’s simple in its system, yet its ramifications can be as complex as the author chooses, and even though the islands don’t move quickly or encounter anything else in their path, the idea that they are endlessly going forward really sparks the imagination. The Emperor is the supreme power in the islands, ruling through governors and constructs (which I’ll talk about more soon), because his magic is the only thing keeping the people safe from the return of the Alanga, the people who ruled before the dynasty and who, we are told, held such great power that when they fought each other whole islands could be destroyed. This leads neatly into talking about the magic system…

The Magic System

As I mentioned, the Emperor rules through constructs, which are creatures built out of parts of various animals (and sometimes humans) and are powered by bone shards, hence the title. The bone shards are taken from the citizens of the Phoenix Empire during the yearly Tithing Festival; children just turned eight are rounded up and a soldier makes a cut behind their ear to extract a bone shard from there. The Emperor then keeps all of them in his palace and, when he needs one for a construct, engraves it with commands. I don’t want to go into more detail, because part of the magic and mystery of the book is learning about this dark magic system, but it’s fascinating and part of what makes this book so interesting, because it allows the reader and the characters in the story to examine the morality behind it. There are other forms of magic present in the narrative, mainly in the context of the Alanga, who everyone seems to both fear and idolise as old gods, and I’m hoping that more of their type of magic will be explored in the coming books.

The Characters

There aren’t that many people to keep track of, despite the fact that there are five point-of-view characters, which I found quite nice. An interesting narrative device is also the fact that three out of the five are written in third-person, whereas the other two are first-person perspective, and it didn’t disrupt the flow as I feared.

  • Lin – the Emperor’s daughter, who can only remember her life for the past five years, despite being twenty-three, and because of this her father has not yet taught her the bone shard magic that keeps him in power. She is competing for knowledge with the Emperor’s foster son, Bayan, and has to find a way to open all the locked doors in the palace to impress her father and regain her memories. She is one of the first-person perspective characters.
  • Jovis – our other first-person perspective character, he is an imperial navigator turned smuggler who has been scouring the islands for years in the hopes of finding the ship with sky-blue sails that took his wife when he was younger. He is one of the most complex and enjoyable characters to read, and I don’t want to give away more of his storyline, because it’s so interesting, but I will say that it involves an unexpected animal companion.
  • Phalue – the daughter of the Nephilanu governor, she is in a relationship with Ranami, a common woman who has strong political ideals. Phalue is constantly torn between her love for Phalue and her duty to her father and to the Emperor.
  • Ranami – Phalue’s partner. A bookseller trying to make life better for the common people, but still trying to have a meaningful relationship with Phalue despite their huge differences.
  • Sand – a woman on the distant island of Maila, trying to discover how she arrived there and why her and the other inhabitants don’t remember a life before the island.

There are, of course, other characters that weave in and out of these main storylines, but the way all five of these build up is really well executed. Apart from Ranami and Phalue, who are already in the same setting, the others don’t really interact until the very end, but I didn’t find this frustrating, which is quite an achievement. Usually, in a story like this, especially when the author can see ahead to their desired end-point, it can feel like the characters are just wasting time, doing things until the plot brings them together, but in The Bone Shard Daughter each individual storyline is strong, and it was a pleasure to see them come together, but it did not feel as if the narrative had been waiting for this to happen to truly become interesting.

Final Thoughts

You can tell from all my positive adjectives that I really enjoyed this book. It’s complex without throwing too much at you at once, it’s well paced, has some phenomenal twists in it that kept me up reading late into the night, and has a great variety of characters. It’s already planned as a trilogy – The Drowning Empire trilogy – so I am looking forward to seeing where the next one take us! If you do end up reading it/have read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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