Home Books The Bone Shard Daughter: by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter: by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter has all of the elements that fantasy readers are looking for in the first book of a new series: an unusual setting, a rigorous magic system, characters with complex arcs, a plot that revolves around both interpersonal and political-economic conflicts and a climax that both resolves the central issues of the story while leaving many questions unanswered. Some of these components are more enthrallingly executed than others, but overall Andrea Stewart’s novel is a worthwhile entry into the genre.

The novel is set on an archipelago with a material culture that most closely resembles Japan’s, but the islands are not fixed in the sea; rather, they migrate through the ocean as floating pedestals of civilization. This gives the book’s world years-long seasons (much like Westeros in that most famous of fantasy epics). But overall, the setting is somewhat under-cooked and mostly serves to set up various plot points, although since the series is titled “The Drowning Empire,” it seems the whole floating-islands conceit will become more central to subsequent volumes. Here, in book one, there are only a few nods to the setting and what it means for the characters’ cultures, such as their norms, economies and food habits.

The plot follows the points-of-view of four different characters, with two quickly emerging as protagonists. The first is Lin, daughter to the Emperor and the nominal heir to the long-ruling Sukai Dynasty. She spends her life essentially locked in the royal palace complex, participating in the strange and manipulative games of her father, who is forcing her to duel his adopted foster-son for the right to inherit the throne. The other main protagonist is Jovis, a fugitive smuggler whose wife was abducted years ago; he has been searching for her ever since. Wanted by the Empire, he’s also on the run from a criminal syndicate.

Where Lin is used to introduce the reader to the book’s magic system, Jovis is the gateway for exploring the overall geography, politics and culture of the floating archipelago. It is a quintessential fantasy set-up, and it works well here. The magic system Lin is learning to implement, unsurprisingly called “Bone Shard magic,” is complicated enough to merit Lin’s lessons serving as something of an exposition-dump in camouflage. As is increasingly common in the fantasy genre, the magic here is systematic and rigorous, more like an academic science than the traditional witches waiting by steaming cauldrons. Bone Shard magic is much like pre-electronics computer programming, where the Emperor collects a fragment of skull bone from every citizen in the Empire, encodes those shards with a litany of algorithmic commands and then uses the encoded shards to power constructs, which are basically primitive robots. It is the constructs who do most of the governing, law enforcing and projecting of political power in the Empire. Even as fantastical magic schemes have skewed scientific over the past couple of decades, computer science-based systems are still quite rare, with only really Robert Jackson Bennett’s {Founder’s Trilogy} attempting it prior to Stewart’s Bone Shard system, rendering the system all the more fun for its novelty.

The aspects of the plot that introduce the world of this floating archipelago and its strange form of magic are the most successful elements here, and the narrative that drives the characters forward into their arcs is quite well done. Yet the author has more trouble laying out the various political machinations of this world. Political intrigue is hard to write, even in a contemporary thriller, much less in a fully made-up fantasy world; there’s a reason the genre is dominated by writers (and readers) whose political views skew right-wing. The politics here are under-developed. There’s a supposedly major rebellion fighting a seemingly all-powerful empire, but the rebels are puerile halfwits, and the empire is far from insurmountable. The citizens of the empire are simply unrealistically submissive and their willingness to cooperate is wildly ahistorical to our own world. The way pre-modern governments (and economies) functioned is exceedingly difficult to understand and even more challenging to narrativize—even George R. R. Martin’s epic, famed for its scintillating political plots, relies on a too-convenient passiveness in the general population—but even still, the political plotting here leaves something to be desired. Still, the opening effort of this new series is a promising harbinger of what’s to come.

The opening effort of this new series is a promising harbinger of what's to come.
77 %
Promising Political Fantasy

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