The Bone Shard Daughter
by Andrea Stewart
448pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.6/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.29/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.37/5

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The Bone Shard Daughter is the first book in Andrea Stewart’s Asian-inspired debut epic fantasy trilogy, The Drowning Empire, set in an archipelago ruled by a mad-scientist-like Emperor. He creates beings known as constructs, which are sewn together from an assortment of animal parts and animated by bone shard magic powered by his subjects. These vary in complexity ranging from those ordered to follow straightforward commands to complicated structures that regulate different aspects of the Empire and report to the Emperor, allowing him to spend more time mastering the bone shard magic, working on mysterious projects, and monitoring the contest between his two potential heirs.

The Emperor’s network of constructs is made possible by Tithing Festivals, during which each eight-year-old child is required to “donate” a bone shard to the Empire. Even if they are one of the 96% who survive this procedure, they may still die prematurely: once a bone shard with commands engraved on it is inserted into a construct, it feeds off the life force of the one it was taken from.

There was a time when this bone shard magic protected the Empire and its residents from a powerful people, and it’s said that they may return one day. But with their threat long confined to the annals of history, many people do not see why they are still beholden to the risk and sacrifice required for the creation of constructs. Some have banded together with the intention of overthrowing the Emperor and his governors, who are—in not-so-shocking news—neither kind nor fair to the common people of the Empire, even aside from the bone shard tithe and its consequences.

The Bone Shard Daughter explores this world from five different perspectives, two of which are closely intertwined and only some of which come together by the end—but all of which work together to show a lot about the Empire. It hooked me immediately from its opening lines, and I appreciated that the characters started in the midst of interesting stories that rapidly became even more compelling. This is a novel that keeps moving; in fact, one of my little quibbles with it is that I actually would have liked for it to slow down a bit to deepen the character relationships and worldbuilding. However, I do think that’s more a personal preference than a major issue with the book, which succeeds at being an immensely fun, well-paced novel with a wonderful world, cast of characters, and story.

My favorite part of The Bone Shard Daughter is the characters (especially the adorable animal companion) and getting to see the Empire from a variety of viewpoints, although I did find some perspectives more engaging than others.

Lin, The Emperor’s Daughter: A Story of Memories Lost and Knowledge Found in a Palace of Creepy Secrets

Father told me I’m broken.

He didn’t speak this disappointment when I answered his question. But he said it with narrowed eyes, the way he sucked on his already hollow cheeks, the way the left side of his lips twitched a little bit down, the movement almost hidden by his beard.

He taught me how to read a person’s thoughts on their face. And he knew that I knew how to read these signs. So between us, it was as though he had spoken out loud.

The question: “Who was your closest childhood friend?”

My answer: “I don’t know.”

I could run as quickly as the sparrow flies, I was as skilled with an abacus as the Empire’s best accountants, and I could name all the known islands in the time it took for tea to finish steeping. But I could not remember my past before the sickness. Sometimes I thought I never would – that the girl from before was lost to me.
— Page 1

Lin, the titular bone shard daughter, is the first character introduced and the one with the most chapters. It’s through her that we learn the most about the Emperor and the workings of constructs.

At the beginning of her story, Lin has spent five years trying to regain her memories in order to please her father and secure her place as his heir. Both she and her father’s foster son, Bayan, had an illness that left them unable to remember their lives prior to that, but while Bayan has since recovered some of his memories, Lin cannot remember anything about her life before she was 18 years old. This leaves her at a disadvantage when her father tests her to determine whether or not he wants to give her a new key to a room in the palace, which would allow her to learn more of the secrets of his magic that the next Emperor will need to know.

And now, Lin is trailing behind Bayan in her father’s competition: her foster brother has more keys than she does and has even begun putting together constructs of his own, while she’s not even allowed into the library containing books about bone shard magic. Fearing that her father favors Bayan and will name him heir, Lin decides to take matters into her own hands by stealing keys and sneaking around the palace to learn more about constructs and how to write their instructions.

Lin’s story, one of two narrated in first person, was a bit rushed but was also my second favorite to follow. It’s engaging because of her situation and determination, her insight into the functionality of constructs, and the thrill of exploring the palace to uncover her father’s secrets—which become increasingly disturbing the more she learns. Her quest for knowledge also takes her outside the palace, which is a new experience for her. Her interactions with the blacksmith she pays to make copies of the keys she gradually steals help her learn more about the concerns of the people she may rule one day and think more about the type of ruler she wants to be herself.

Although Lin doesn’t seem to give as much thought to what it means to rule as one may expect, especially earlier in the novel, I think it makes sense that she’s more focused on the here and now of winning the competition to become her father’s heir. That she would become the next Emperor was decided for her (at least, until Bayan was put forth as a potential candidate given Lin’s continued memory loss), and I don’t think she desired power. She did have a competitive streak that made her want to win, but mostly, she seemed to want her father’s love and approval. She wanted him to stop seeing her as a daughter who couldn’t remember her past and instead see her as a daughter who could be the Empire’s future.

Lin’s view of the competition as being more about winning her father’s favor than anything else made her dynamic with Bayan particularly compelling; in fact, this was one of my favorite parts of her tale, along with her creepy palace adventures. I loved the progression of their relationship from a cold impersonal rivalry to a potential allyship/friendship after Lin made a potentially unwise but compassionate stand that led to a deeper understanding of the situation Bayan faced.

Lin’s journey is ultimately about someone doing the best she can and becoming a kinder, braver, more thoughtful person in the process—someone who may be exactly what’s needed after her father’s rule.

Jovis, A Wanted Smuggler: A Story of Law Evasion and Heroics, Mysterious Powers, and Animal Companionship

I was a good liar – the best. It was the only reason I still had a head on my shoulders.
— Page 17

Jovis is the only character with a first-person perspective other than Lin, and he’s also the only one who has nearly as many chapters as she does. It’s from his viewpoint that we get the biggest overall picture of the Empire since he travels to different islands searching for his wife, who disappeared seven years before his tale begins.

Jovis has been chasing stories of disappearances just like hers: people who went missing with a few coins left in their place, often accompanied by descriptions matching the boat he saw on the day his own wife vanished. When seeking news of a recent missing person, a woman provides him with information in exchange for rescuing her visiting nephew from the Tithing Festival and bringing him back to his parents. Jovis not only rescues him from the Emperor’s tithe but also rescues him from drowning when the island unexpectedly starts sinking. As he rows away from the land rapidly being submerged, Jovis sees a kitten that seems to desperately want to get into his boat and picks him up.

When Jovis returns the child to his grateful parents, he tells them his name and shows them his recognizable navigator tattoo on a whim, knowing they won’t turn in the man who rescued their son despite the large bounty on his head. What he didn’t expect is that word would spread that he’s a heroic savior of children and people would start pleading with him to rescue their own from Tithing Festivals—or that he’d start developing magical powers seemingly tied to the animal he rescued, which just add to the legends of Jovis taking root throughout the Empire.

Jovis’ story is easily my favorite, not just because I enjoyed his viewpoint the most but also because I loved everything about his animal companion, Mephi, and their dynamic. Once Jovis is no longer fleeing for his life (at least, for a little while since this is not a condition that tends to last long for him), he realizes that Mephi is not like any kind of creature he’s seen before: he’s similar to an otter with an angular, cat-like face, which is why he mistook the baby animal for a kitten when he saw him struggling in the sea. At first, Jovis tries to get Mephi to leave since he doesn’t have time to care for a pet while searching for his wife, but Mephi always returns to him. Jovis eventually finds he’s grown rather fond of the little animal in spite of himself—and Mephi ends up bringing out the best in him, also in spite of himself, as Jovis is actually a cinnamon roll underneath the heartless shield he keeps trying to cling to.

As more people come to Jovis wanting his help, he keeps resisting since he’s just trying to find his wife and doesn’t want to get involved, but Mephi changes all that. It seems to please Mephi whenever Jovis gives in and agrees to aid someone, and it soon becomes clear that he’s more of a companion than a pet. Mephi seems to understand language (at least, when he wants to), and he starts learning to speak for himself as he grows.

Jovis’ friendship with Mephi is the heart of his story, and they both won my whole heart, especially together.

Phalue and Ranami: The Story of a Future Governor and Her Commoner Girlfriend

Phalue wants Ranami to marry her. Ranami wants to start a revolution.
From “Happily Ever Aftermath” by Andrea Stewart

Phalue and Ranami each have three chapters narrated in third person, and their stories are closely intertwined. Their perspectives show the everyday struggles of one island’s people under an uncaring governor and give some insight into the revolutionary group that wants to overthrow the government.

Phalue, the governor’s daughter and a warrior, keeps asking Ranami, a bookseller who grew up on the streets with other orphans, to marry her—and Ranami keeps turning down her proposals because she does not want to be a governor’s wife. Though Phalue has good intentions and the makings of a more thoughtful governor than her father, Ranami says she doesn’t truly understand the plights of the people she will one day govern. Ranami then gets both of them involved with the revolutionary group gaining traction in the Empire when she has them help her fake her kidnapping, bringing Phalue rushing to her aid prepared to run her sword through anyone standing between her and her girlfriend.

Although I felt that Phalue and Ranami’s shorter story would have benefited from delving more into their relationship and the islanders’ problems, I enjoyed that it explored whether or not true love is enough when two people have clashing worldviews. It also eventually ties into one of the other main characters’ chapters, and their interactions and observations of one another are fun to read.

Their part was especially rushed, but Phalue and Ranami’s story has a lot of interesting aspects between the focus on their relationship, complicity, and the necessity of working to expand one’s empathy and understanding.

Sand, A Mango Harvester: A Story of Awakening

A thought struck her, and it knocked out her breath as surely as the fall had.

Why was she on Malia at all? Why didn’t any of them leave?
— Page 54

Sand’s short chapters, which are also in third person, are interspersed throughout the novel. They’re puzzling at first, but as you read more of the other viewpoints and learn more about the world, they become clearer.

Sand lives on an island with several other people, where she spends much of her time picking mangoes. While doing so one day, she remembers something new: a time before her life on the island. She then begins wondering about where she came from, why they’re all here, and why they never leave and tries to find out if the others have any memories of a life before the island.

Although Sand’s story is separate from the others so far, its connections are more apparent by its end.

In Conclusion

The Bone Shard Daughter is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year with its sinister magic and engaging characters. Although some viewpoints were more compelling than others and the pacing moved a little too quickly for my taste, it’s an extraordinarily fun novel set in a fascinating world with main characters who are doing their best and trying to do the right thing (or who end up doing the right thing in spite of themselves, in Jovis’ case).

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Bone Shard Daughter