Book Reviews, Fantasy

Review: The Bone Shard War by Andrea Stewart

The battle is over. Now the war begins.

Lin Sukai has won her first victory as Emperor, but the future of the Phoenix Empire hangs in the balance – and Lin is dangerously short of allies. As her own governors plot treason, the Shardless Few renew hostilities. Worse still, Lin discovers her old nemesis Nisong has joined forces with the rogue Alanga, Ragan. Both seek her death. Yet hopes lies in history. Legend tells of seven mythic swords, forged in centuries past. If Lin can find them before her enemies, she may yet be able to turn the tide. If she fails, the Sukai dynasty – and the entire empire – will fall.

Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for the free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Warning: this is the third book in a series, so there will definitely be spoilers for books one and two. If you’re interested I have reviewed both of those previously: The Bone Shard Daughter & The Bone Shard Emperor.

As the conclusion to one of my recent favourite fantasy series, I have been waiting for this with great anticipation! In her first book Stewart set up a world full of intrigue and tension, with an empire of floating islands on the cusp of rebellion despite the magic-powered constructs that keep watch of everything for the elusive emperor. When Lin, the emperor’s daughter, takes power at the end of The Bone Shard Daughter and collides with Jovis, a smuggler and reluctant spy developing strange new powers, things can only escalate. And indeed, in The Bone Shard Emperor these two face threats from all sides as they try to build a better empire and wrestle with the return of an ancient feared enemy: the Alanga. But the Alanga aren’t exactly what the stories tell, and Lin and Jovis realise that they themselves are the first in a new wave of these beings, given strength and control of the elements through their bond with creatures called Ossalen. After an explosive battle, the second book leaves Lin and Jovis scattered and still surrounded by threats.

I have to admit, going into The Bone Shard War, that despite only reading book two last year, I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. I recalled the general events and characters, but there were certain twists and reveals that had completely disappeared from my brain! And so I was a little confused when I started reading and had to recall what the ex-monk Ragan had done, and why Jovis was back with the gang leader Kaphra, and who Lin really was. Especially since this book is set two years after the events of the last one, which took some mental readjusting. There is no handy summary at the start of the book -though I never read those anyway- but Andrew Stewart was very good at slipping in little reminders in a way that didn’t feel forced, and it didn’t take me long to get back into the flow of things.

And so in this epic conclusion, the forces at play are greater than ever: not only are the Shardless Few still a threat to the concept of empire and to Lin’s rule, but the constant increase in Alanga numbers is building tension among the general population, who see them as unnatural and a threat to their existence. And though Nisong’s construct army was destroyed in battle, she survived and has joined the rogue Alanga Ragan in the hopes he will help her to gain the throne. On top of that, the wet season has lead to sickness among the islands, and after the discovery that mining witstone is causing islands to sink, there is no other quick way to sail and distribute medicine. I was immediately stressed for Lin, with all of this on her plate and Jovis missing and presumed dead. I was even more stressed for Jovis, who is being forced to do the dirty work of his ex-boss Kaphra, killing and stealing in order to keep Mephi safe.

Because Kaphra has one of the few weapons that can injure Alanga and ossalen permanently: a mythic sword, one of seven believed to have been used to kill all of the previous Alanga. And these swords are what the plot revolves around, as each faction races to find them for their own reasons. The story spans the entire empire, taking us to new islands with their own secrets as well as revisiting old haunts such as Maila and Nephilanu, and though at times it did feel a bit like all the characters were just going from one place to another, only to then need to get somewhere else, Stewart kept things interesting by maintaining character tension and having Lin especially continue to study the Alanga and the islands and find new and shocking revelations.

I have to say that that is my favourite part of this series: the twists and turns are so much related to the magic system and the hidden history of the world, and are uncovered in such a satisfying manner. It’s clear Stewart knew exactly where she wanted to get to and has layered everything so skilfully that peeling back the layers feels natural and rewarding. From the complexities of bone-shard magic in the first book leading to Lin’s discoveries of her father’s human constructs, to the older magic of the Alanga leading to bigger truths about how the known world came to be, it is all a joy to discover. On top of that, The Bone Shard War does a lot to unpack the impacts of imperialism and conflict on the people with less power, and it’s remarkable that one story fit so much into it.

The last thing I will say is that, though I loved the book, I am still not sure how I feel about the conclusion. I won’t go into details, because this is a spoiler-free review, but it certainly did not play out in a way I expected it to, and though it was fitting in some ways, in others I was left feeling a little lost. I’d be interested to see what other people thought of it! But overall I felt this was a really strong trilogy, and it’s one that I will keep recommending. I am also very keen to see what else Stewart brings out next, as I know she’s sold another trilogy and from her recent tweets it sounds like it’s going to be an interesting one!

Book Info

Published: 20th April 2023 by Orbit
Genre: fantasy
Pages: 624
Series: The Drowning Empire, book three
Narration style: first person past tense + third person past tense
Format read: eARC
Content Warnings: death, torture, confinement, memory loss

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