The Bone Shard Daughter is the first book in the fantasy trilogy ‘The Drowning Empire’ and the debut novel of Chinese-American author Andrea Stewart. It’s also easily one of my favourite books of 2020!
The story is set in an East Asian inspired fantasy world, where bone shard magic is used by the Emperor to fuel monstrous animal-like constructs. Stewart doesn’t hold your hand with the world building and you have to put the pieces together yourself to make sense of the geography, history, culture and magic of the Empire. I loved that it wasn’t all spelt out with an info dump upfront, and the questions you are left with when you finish the book keep you thinking about it for days.
The world and setting is richly drawn and unlike anything I’ve read before, with the Empire itself being made up of floating migratory islands. The islands migratory patterns effect their distance from and interaction with other nations, their seasons and their trading patterns. The magic system is also unique, with bone shards being forcibly taken from all citizens as children, before being used by the Emperor to power constructs that help him rule and enforce law and order. When we get a glimpse into the inner workings of the magic system is seems intricate and complex, and I can’t wait it to be explored further in the next book.
The story is told across five POV’s. Lin, the Emperor’s daughter and titular character, who is trying to regain her memories and prove to her father that she is ready to learn bone shard magic and be named his heir. Jovis, a smuggler turned reluctant hero who is searching for his abducted childhood sweetheart. Phalue and Ranami, a Governors daughter and her girlfriend who have extremely different class backgrounds and upbringings. And finally Sand, a mysterious woman on the outskirts of the empire who has been living her life in a haze.
Across all the storylines themes of empire, identity, family, belonging and rebellion are explored. I enjoyed Lin’s chapters the most, and the tension in mystery in her storyline is definitely what kept me reading this book into the night! She is a fantastically defiant, rebellious and driven protagonist. Jovis came in as a close second for my favourite POV, with extra points for the inclusion of a cute magical animal sidekick called Mephi. I really enjoyed how Phalue and Ramani’s storyline explored class difference, and I thought Phalue’s struggle with coming to terms with the privilege her status affords her was really well done. I also loved that Phalue and Ramani’s relationship wasn’t used as a lazy plot device to drive any homophobic inter-family conflict or societal shunning as I’ve seen in other fantasy books.
I have seen some people criticise this book for being slow paced, but for me this book comes as close to perfect as you can get. It perfectly introduces the characters and the world and is a great set up to an exciting trilogy. Now I’m just sad that I have to wait for the second book!