The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart.
Orbit Books, 435pp, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Steve Dean
The Empire is a collection of islands drifting on an endless sea. The emperor himself has been ruling for several decades, kept in power by his bone shard magic. This power allows him to create magical constructs, creatures which are utterly loyal to him and over which he has total control. The creatures are given their orders written on small pieces of bone. These bone shards come from youngsters, a small sliver is broken off their skull when they reach a certain age. Some people die during this process, but the people believe it’s necessary to protect the empire against the return of powerful invaders. Or at least they used to. There’s been no sign of invasion for many years, and the people are getting tired of the emperor and his dictatorship.
The ageing emperor has a daughter, Lin, who should be his heir. The emperor has doubts about her skills with the bone shard magic and starts training another instead. Lin is unhappy with this and starts to teach herself these skills in secret.
Meanwhile, the smuggler Jovis is on another island when it starts to sink. He takes to his boat and rescues a small otter-like creature he calls Mephi, who starts to talk and turns out to be a strange creature indeed. These two threads are woven with other minor ones to form the main story.
The copy I read is an advance review copy, and only when trying to find a retail price for it did I discover it was book one of the Drowning Empire presumed trilogy. It’s not a problem, as you quickly realise the story isn’t going to end when the pages run out, but it did change my expectations for the book when I started reading it.
The first thing to say about this book is it’s very well written. The story flows effortlessly into your mind as if the words are directly transformed into images. Either the author is very talented, has put a lot of work into this novel, or used magic, or maybe all three. The world building is also very good, in that it exists within the story and not as a separate part. It’s detailed enough to make sense but not over-imagined or so deep it takes over the narrative. For instance, the author has created a method of quickly propelling boats between the scattered islands, but hasn’t re-invented the actual vessels, because there was no need.
The characters are all well-fleshed and very believable, good and bad, flaws and all. Their interactions are all very realistic. The one minor criticism I have it that both Jovis’ and Lin’s chapters are written in first person, the rest in third person. I would only expect the lead character to get first person status, certainly only one character per book. The chapters are clearly labelled so there’s no confusion, but it could create problems with immersion for some.
I’m impressed this is a debut novel as it’s so accomplished, I’ll certainly be looking out for the next book. I’m not saying Andrea Stewart is the next David Gemmell, but if the author keeps up this standard, there are certainly going to be comparisons, and rightly so.