Welcome to Fantasy Fix, a new monthly series where I highlight the best and brightest of the fantasy novels I’m reading! This week’s selection is The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart, the first book in The Drowning Empire, and is available to purchase here.
Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter was a blind buy for me this month—the premise was intriguing, the book was readily available at my local Barnes & Noble, and I had time (and $25) to kill. It ended up being a blessing from cover to cover, quickly establishing itself as my favorite fantasy novel of 2020 and kicking off what is sure to be a phenomenal new series.
The novel follows several characters living in the fictional Phoenix Empire during the reign of the Sukai Dynasty. The empire is spread out over several islands and maintained with a system of magic whereby the emperor demands a shard of bone from each of his subjects, which can then be used to power magical constructs the emperor constructs by sewing together the bodies of animals.
The downside to this system is that when a bone shard is used to power a construct, it slowly drains the life of whoever the shard came from, sending them to an early grave.
Colorful Characters, Pitch Perfect Pacing, and Thrilling Themes
While it’s not a short novel, clocking in at just over 400 pages, I was concerned when I started The Bone Shard Daughter that its reach would exceed its grasp. The book changes POV often, juggling five different characters, and moving between them with each new chapter. Two of these characters are written in the first-person, while the other three are in the third-person.
When I realized that we would have so many POV characters I thought the book might not be long enough to build out a meaningful arc for each of them, but Stewart’s work quickly put these fears to rest.
We study bone shard magic with the emperor’s amnesiac daughter, Lin; follow an infamous smuggler, Jovis, as he takes a more active role in the destiny of the Phoenix Empire while searching for his missing wife; watch as Phalue, the daughter of a provincial governor, is slowly radicalized by her lover, Ranami; and experience the awakening of Sand, a young woman who is part of an island community with no memory of the outside world.
The Bone Shard Daughter’s pacing is excellent, building each character’s story to a crescendo in exactly the right way and time. Stewart effortlessly moves between her cast, interweaving their personal journeys with the broader narrative and tying them to the novel’s main themes: identity, responsibility, and class consciousness.
Each of these themes receives ample airtime over the course of the novel and will certainly inform the series going forward as Stewart (hopefully) doubles down and adds further depth to each of them.
Worldbuilding That’s Worlds Beyond Its Contemporaries
In addition to the work she does thematically and with her characters, Stewart also shows a deftness for worldbuilding that many other contemporary fantasy authors could learn from. She quickly establishes the world, fleshes it out over the course of the novel, and remembers to infuse the magic system in the fabric of the Phoenix Empire’s society.
We’re regularly reminded of the toll that the bone shards take on ordinary citizens, as well as the lengths citizens will go to to protect themselves or their loved ones from having a shard taken/held by the empire. This commitment to the magic and its cost grounds the more fantastical elements of the story and reminds you that every talking abomination the emperor or his progeny set loose is made at the cost of an innocent civilian’s wellbeing.
We know that in the real world those in power will put their constituents through a meatgrinder to maintain the status quo, and Stewart transplants that universal truth into the world of The Bone Shard Daughter in a way that makes it a more immediate and engaging read.
I want to avoid spoiling any major plot details in this review, but let me assure you that The Bone Shard Daughter is the first entry in what is shaping up to be an epic story about an empire in decline, a class revolution, and, of course, magic.
The world is influenced by Asian culture, something that has been done in other fantasy novels, but still feels exciting and fresh when compared to the traditional Euro-fantasy settings we’re accustomed to; the characters are given meaningful motivations and compelling arcs; and when the sequel drops I’ll be first in line to buy it.
The Bone Shard Daughter is Must-Read Fantasy from start to finish and I’ll be singing its praises for a long time to come. Do yourself a favor and take a chance on this book—you won’t regret it. It’s available to purchase here, or wherever fine books are sold.