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The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
4.5
Book Name: The Bone Shard Daughter
Author: Andrea Stewart
Publisher(s): Orbit
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: September 8, 2020 (US) September 10, 2020 (UK)

Frankenstein meets Hacker meets Solo meets Legend of Zelda, in an Asian family drama.

Given my interest in Asian-themed fantasy, it came as a surprise that I didn’t hear about Andrea Stewart’s debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, until about a week before it launched to a parade of glowing critical reviews.

Of course, Stewart is quick to point out her story is not explicitly an Asian fantasy. This also came as a surprise to me, because as you could tell from my tagline, a list of what Bone Shard Daughter isn’t is quite short. I imagined myself in her shoes (though given her height, they might be too big for me), trying to compose an elevator pitch…and shuddered.

There is so much going on in The Bone Shard Daughter that it could’ve easily fallen apart into an incoherent mess, yet Stewart masterfully stiches together seemingly unrelated plot lines, worldbuilding threads, and thematic elements. In a sense, the story resembles the monstrous Constructs that run the sprawling island empire setting: a mishmash that create a functional whole.

Cobbled together from the parts of various animals, these constructs are powered by human skull shards, which every child in the empire must provide. The harvesting process kills one in twenty-five, and once the Emperor starts inscribing commands in the shard to use in a construct, the person will begin to decline. Since Bone Shard Magic was used to overthrow the tyrannical Alanga centuries ago, and is now the front line defense in the event they ever come back, it’s considered everyone’s patriotic duty. Intentional or not, it’s a commentary on the social contract. How much do people sacrifice for safety? When has a government gone from legitimate demands to using fear as a means of control?

What I appreciated was how this one concept blooms into more worldbuilding concepts: the bone shard harvesting has become a ceremony, where children wear their best clothes and are rewarded afterwards with their favorite dishes. To maintain a monopoly on the magic, the Emperor has withdrawn into his palace and disengaged from the populace, letting his constructs run the empire’s bureaucracy, much like the eunuchs of Imperial China dictated policy from emperors who grew disconnected from their citizens.

Bone shards are not the only worldbuilding or magic at play. Whitstone, mined from islands, which float through the Endless Sea in seven year rainy/dry cycles, power the winds and may have other magical effects. Cloud juniper trees also seem to have a different kind of magic, which I suspect will be explored in the sequels.

No matter how lush the worldbuilding, or how complex the magic system, a story is only as compelling as the cast. The Bone Shard Daughter has a plethora of interesting characters. Of these, I was drawn most to Jovis, an imperial navigator turned smuggler with a heart of gold and a quip for every situation. His wife has been missing for years, and he’s on the hunt for the boat with blue sails which took her. Along the way, he’s fallen in and out with a criminal organization, which has put a price on his head. He rationalizes his helping children avoid the bone shard harvesting as just doing it for the money. No Han Solo is complete without a Chewbacca, and in this case, it’s the mysterious, adorable Mephi, a “kitten” who he rescues from the sinking of one of the floating islands.

The main character is Lin, the daughter of the emperor. Despite the author’s claim that The Bone Shard Daughter isn’t an Asian fantasy, Lin’s story is an Asian Family Saga, with her need to find validation with her father, who has set her up in competition with his foster son, Bayan. When adopted seven years earlier, Bayan brought a disease into the capital that stole most of Lin’s memories. Like Link in the Legend of Zelda, she steals keys to the palace’s many locked doors that hold numerous secrets to Bone Shard Magic. The more she surreptitiously learns, the more she is able to “hack” the commands inside Constructs.

As opposed to Jovis’ snarky internal narrative, Lin’s is more lyrical and metaphorical. This distinction of narrative voices carries over to the three other POV characters. Phalue, a governor’s daughter is brusque and confident; her lover Ranami, a peasant girl is introspective and resolute. Sand’s is brooding as she tries to recover her memories and unravel the mysteries of an island she shares with several others who are equally lost. The former two show us other aspects of the empire, and also addresses the theme of class differences in romantic relationships, while the latter keeps us guessing and ties into a complex plot.

Speaking of plots: as with my many of my favorite books, The Bone Shard Daughter has a well-seeded plot twist, as well as a handful of misdirections that end up leaving several questions unanswered. Going into the sequels I hope to find out what is the mechanism of the floating islands, and is Mephi’s species involved? Is Sand more than we think she is? Are the Alangans going to come back?

I rate the Bone Shard Daughter a 9.25 out of 10.

NOTE: I both read and listened to the audiobook, which featured three narrators—Natalie Naudus, Emily Woo Zeller, and Feodor Chin, the former two who I’ve heard a lot about (Natalie Naudus’ Tik Tok narrating is absolutely HILARIOUS). I usually hate multiple narrators, but since the story arcs rarely intersected, it didn’t feel strange hearing the same character with different voices.

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