Rin Chupeco’s novel The Bone Witch, the first book in a young adult fantasy trilogy, is the story of a powerful necromancer named Tea who was told her destiny was not to save the world but to change it—for better and for worse. Tea herself is introduced through the viewpoint of a bard, who finds her in exile about five years after she first discovered her magic, and his perspective alternates with hers as she relates her tale to him. As much as I enjoyed her narrative, the lovely writing, and exploring the world, it’s this storytelling structure and the dimension it adds to Tea’s characterization that truly make The Bone Witch a standout novel: at seventeen years old, she seems hardened compared to her younger self, yet it seems as though she has the same core personality traits and her values have simply shifted with her experiences.

The first glimpse of Tea seen through the eyes of the bard is a young woman effortlessly exerting control over one of the giant undead daevas capable of wreaking havoc throughout the world. She appears confident and mighty, and the scars she bears and the look in her eyes show she’s been through a lot, especially considering her age. After this brief scene showing the bard’s first impressions of Tea and a conversation in which she agrees to tell her tale, she begins her story. As a young girl, she never seemed particularly extraordinary and neither she nor anyone else realized she had power over the Dark—until the day twelve-year-old Tea unwittingly resurrected her older brother during his funeral.

Her first bout with necromancy left her rather drained, but fortunately, she was aided in her recovery by a woman named Mykaela, an experienced bone witch who became her mentor. Mykaela whisked Tea away from her quiet country life, along with her undead brother, and Tea began the journey to becoming an asha, a politically savvy woman who knows how to wield her magic, fight, use fashion to her advantage, and entertain through various arts such as dancing and music. However, she has a bigger challenge ahead of her than most asha due to being a rare bone witch, who are feared and hated by many.

Through her interactions with the bard, it’s revealed that much has changed since Tea first learned of her abilities. It’s fascinating to see just how different she is while simultaneously seeing how her nature combined with her background could have led to these changes. I loved that though Tea initially has a little bit of hesitation about being a bone witch, she’s quickly forced to admit to herself that she liked the taste of power—and that she continues to be self aware as she embraces her power and learns what she can about it, whether others would approve of her methods or not. Though she’s ultimately much harder and less merciful, she also still seems to be motivated by the same sense of justice exhibited by her younger self, and as her tale advances it demonstrates her increasing bitterness about the treatment of bone witches and the rigidity of asha traditions. Knowing where Tea ends up makes this novel far stronger than if it followed a linear path, and it also creates some suspense as it gradually fills in details about what happened in the past—as well as what exactly Tea has been planning while in exile, since that story is not yet finished, either.

Although the main protagonist and her characterization were my favorite parts, the lovely writing was another strength, especially in the bard’s more poetic sections. His perspective can be a bit melodramatic, but I found it quite readable and enjoyed how it often tied into the next part of Tea’s narration.

The world was also captivating, but I did feel that this is where the book faltered the most. It simultaneously provided lots of information about magic and history while not explaining enough, and it also seemed as though some elements were added because they were interesting or created tension rather than because they made sense in-world. For instance, everyone—from kings to common people—wears a heartsglass around their neck that shows their essence. To most, this just gives a general idea of who they are, but those with magic can learn to understand the subtle changes that most do not see. Though this can be useful in some situations, such as determining why someone is ill and how to cure them, it can also make people rather vulnerable when they interact with someone who can read what they’re truly feeling or exchange heartsglasses with a spouse. Perhaps I’ll feel differently once the trilogy has been finished, but right now, it seems as though the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits, making it hard to believe people would follow this system even though I rather like the general concept. Additionally, parts of the mythology could have been fleshed out a bit more, such as the Faceless and their operations. It would have improved one of the subplots to have a better idea of their place in the world and their goals beyond Being Evil.

Despite any quibbles, I loved The Bone Witch mainly because of its heroine and the storytelling structure that enhanced her characterization. The way it skillfully built up both parts of Tea’s story was mesmerizing, and I can hardly wait to continue both threads of her tale in The Heart Forger (coming March 20).

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

Read an Excerpt from The Bone Witch

Read Rin Chupeco’s Women in SF&F Month Essay on Heroines (including Tea!)