The Bone Shard Emperor
by Andrea Stewart
560pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 8.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.24/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.12/5

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Note for readers new to this series: This review covers the middle book in a trilogy and contains spoilers for the previous book in the series. You may prefer to read my 8/10 review of the first book, The Bone Shard Daughter, especially if you are interested in the following:

  • Asian-inspired secondary fantasy worlds and/or island settings
  • Multiple perspectives
  • People growing and doing their best
  • Cute (really cute!) animal companions
  • Magic that comes with a cost, involving sewn-together corpses animated by commands written on bone
  • A palace full of secrets and mysteries, related to the bone magic and the Emperor who wields it
  • An already-established f/f romance between a commoner and a noble struggling with class differences

The Bone Shard Emperor is the middle book in Andrea Stewart’s Asian-inspired epic fantasy trilogy, The Drowning Empire, falling between The Bone Shard Daughter and The Bone Shard War. It continues the stories of the same characters from the first book, and it deals with the aftermath of Lin assuming her father’s place as Emperor of the archipelago.

The first book in this series was one of my favorite books of 2020 with creepy bone magic that animated creatures made from pieces of corpses, a palace full of mystery, an adorable animal companion, and characters who grew into better people. The second book was also one of my favorites of its publication year, though it did take longer to hook me than the first book did. But once it got going, it was difficult to put down, and I ended up enjoying it every bit as much as the previous installment. It just didn’t have the same immediate, gripping tension as the first book, which thrusts readers into Lin’s challenges with her father, learning his magic, and trying to recover her memories—and begins Jovis’s story with his flight from an island that rapidly starts sinking for unknown reasons.

However, I reread The Bone Shard Emperor to prepare for the conclusion that came out in April, and I found it was even better on the second read. I was riveted from start to finish, plus I had a great time with it for all the same reasons as the first read: the fantastic world, the engaging characters, and the (re)discovery of the past events that made people fear the return of Alanga magic. (While many revelations were predictable even on the first read, having an idea of what was coming worked for me in this case. It didn’t seem like the author was expecting to shock readers after dropping a bunch of hints, and it was fun to see precisely how everything unfolded and the characters’ reactions to it all.) Although Jovis and Lin remained my favorites, the second book had me more interested in all the characters’ stories than the previous one. Their sections are more compelling even when separate from the others, but they’re also more closely connected than in the first book, so there’s more insight into what they thought of each other.

I also appreciated this novel’s focus on the aftermath of replacing a terrible ruler with someone who actually cared about the people. Lin has a lot to deal with in her quest to do better than her father: the people who don’t know her and assume she’s just another version of the old ruler, the governors of the various islands who have their own individual ambitions and concerns, a rebel group that wants to remove her from power, and an army of the previous Emperor’s bone shard creations. (Oh, and there’s also her personal struggle with the realization that she’s not actually her father’s daughter but a replica he made in an attempt to recreate his dead wife. It’s a lot to take in.)

But in addition to all these challenges, there are systemic problems that can’t be resolved quickly or easily, and sometimes trying to make improvements causes new issues or upsets people resistant to change. For instance, Lin ends the Tithing Festivals that required people to sacrifice a piece of bone that would then be used to power a bone shard creature, and she destroys whatever constructs she can find. This is necessary because using someone’s bone shard for this purpose drains their life, but at the same time, not having creatures under her command makes it harder to protect her people from the destructive army sweeping through the islands. Also, some governors are reluctant to end the practice of mining witstone despite the fact that it may be linked to the sudden sinking of islands: it brings in money and allows quicker travel, and it’s not like mining has caused their islands to sink so it’s probably fine. It can be difficult for Lin to determine the right thing to do when there are so many conflicting interests and pressures to weigh, and she can’t trust or rely on anyone other than the intelligent animal she found and bonded with.

Phalue and Ranami’s story has some similarities to Lin’s since Phalue took her father’s place and the newly married couple is governing their island together. Their situation isn’t quite the same since they only need to worry about a single island’s people and at least they have each other—plus, it helps that their people actually like Phalue. But they can’t just make systemic problems go away through good intentions, either, and they also have problems with the rebel group, who has a strong presence on their island. Though Ranami was once involved with them, she has not been on good terms with them since they tried to assassinate her wife, and their methods of trying to force change hurts the common people. I found the challenges of governing and the focus on wanting to help the homeless orphans facing the same problems Ranami once had made for a more compelling storyline than they had in the first book. As much as I appreciated the exploration of a relationship between people with different worldviews in the previous installment, they could also be frustrating characters. Ranami was obviously right about the need to do better for their people, but the way she went about getting Phalue to pay attention by leading her to believe she’d been kidnapped by the rebel group seemed like a terrible idea. I preferred their story progression in this book, when they were working together and on the same page about the bigger things, even if they do have some differences of opinion as humans will—like how much to trust an orphan Phalue befriends.

In general, the main characters are people trying their best despite bad circumstances. Jovis—being, well, Jovis—got himself into yet another sticky situation by spying for the rebels as Lin’s new Captain of the Guard, and he finds himself more and more torn by this position. He didn’t need to remove the Emperor since Lin already took care of that, and Lin is actively making changes for the better: there’s no longer any need for him to save children from the Tithing Festivals. The more he gets to know Lin, the more he wants to trust her, and Lin finds herself in the same position. It’s hard for either of them to be open with anyone since they each have secrets that make them vulnerable, but they also share a secret that slowly brings them together: their bond with their animal companions that gives them powers. I loved both of their overlapping stories, reading what they thought of each other, and the potential for romance. (And even though Mephi is bigger now, Jovis’s animal companion is still the cutest. He has no boundaries, is always after food, and doesn’t yet realize that he can’t just take whatever he wants.)

The one exception to “main characters doing their best” is Nisong, the leader of the construct army, who has her own chapters but not as many as the others. As with Ranami and Phalue, I found her chapters more compelling in this book than the first, largely because of the parallels between her and Lin. Both were created as replicas of the Emperor’s late wife, and they’re both determined people who refuse to give up. Yet Lin tends to lead with her compassion, and Nisong puts her goals before those she loves in her quest to install herself as the new Emperor. It’s interesting to consider the experiences and choices that set these two apart and ultimately make them who they are.

As much as I appreciated how The Bone Shard Emperor deepened the world and characters, it doesn’t have quite as much depth as I would have liked. There’s certainly some complexity since it acknowledges that multiple things can be true at once, like how someone can be a good father but a bad governor or how someone can like Lin as a person but want to abolish the position of Emperor. But it also tends to keep the focus on a couple of main things without fully delving into the complications of various individuals or the social structure. This is not a bad thing since it’s largely why this novel is accessible and absorbing; it’s just why this wasn’t a 5-star book for me personally even though I very much enjoyed it and have an overall high opinion of it.

In any case, The Bone Shard Emperor does what the second book in a trilogy should do: it expands on the world and characters, answers some questions but leaves room for more speculation while waiting for the conclusion, and provides a fantastic reading experience. It absolutely succeeded in making me want to find out what happened next, and I dove right into the final book in the series right after my reread.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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

Read an Excerpt from The Bone Shard Emperor

Read “Happily Ever Aftermath” by Andrea Stewart

Reviews of Previous Book(s) in The Drowning Empire Trilogy:

  1. The Bone Shard Daughter