Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 8 September 2020)
Series: The Drowning Empire – Book One
Length: 439 pages
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
From outstanding new fantasy author Andrea Stewart comes The Bone Shard Daughter, the first entry in The Drowning Empire series and one of the best debuts of 2020.
For generations the Sukai Dynasty has ruled the floating islands of the sprawling Phoenix Empire, protecting it from a mysterious force from the past. In exchange for the Sukai’s protection and governance, each citizen must provide the Emperor with a shard of bone from their head, which can be utilised by the royal family to bring life to magnificent and dangerous magical constructs of flesh and power. However, as the Emperor’s influence fades, revolution and change is coming to the Phoenix Empire, and the fate of the land lies with a handful of exceptional people.
In the capital, Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, has lost her status as heir after a disease takes her childhood memories from her. Desperate to gain her father’s respect and her rightful place on the throne, Lin embarks on a dangerous quest to unlock the secrets of her father’s palace and gain the knowledge to master her family’s dangerous bone shard magic. However, ambition and fear will drive her to attempt the impossible: turning her father’s most powerful constructs against their creator.
Elsewhere, Jovis, a notorious smuggler, is chasing the ghosts of his past as he attempts to find a shadowy ship that took something precious from him. As he scours the seas of the Empire, he becomes an unlikely hero to the people, saving children from the Emperor’s bone shard tithe and ensuring their safety. His mission will take him to the island of Nephilanu, where rebels are massing, and the governor’s unruly daughter Phalue finds herself torn between love and duty. At the same time, a mysterious woman awakens on an isolated island with no memories of her past and a desire to gain freedom. Each of these people will find the fate of many thrust upon them, and their adventures will shake the Phoenix Empire to its foundation. But are any of them truly prepared for the consequences of their actions?
The Bone Shard Daughter is a fantastic and clever novel from Andrea Stewart that was one of the most hyped-up fantasy releases of last year. I have been meaning to read this excellent book for a while now and I finally got the chance to do so a couple of weeks ago. I am extremely glad that I did as Stewart’s debut novel was an exciting and captivating book that transports the reader to a compelling and unique fantasy setting with all manner of conflicts, magic and terrible secrets. This was an outstanding debut novel, and I had a great time reading it.
Stewart has come up with a captivating and complex character-driven narrative for her first novel, which sees several young protagonists from various walks of life attempt to survive in this brutal empire while also discovering its dangerous and earth-shattering secrets. The Bone Shard Daughter contains four separate and distinctive storylines, each of which follows a separate protagonist (or in one case, two linked protagonists), on their own adventure of discovery. Stewart does a fantastic job of introducing each of these storylines at the start of the novel, with some compelling opening chapters that hook the reader in different ways, whether with descriptions of complex magic, the start of an apparent kidnapping or a frantic attempt to escape from a sinking island. Once these storylines have their hooks in the reader, Stewart starts to grow each of them throughout the course of the book, with all four of them maintaining a well-balanced pace. While some of the storylines have a little more prominence than others, they are all really intriguing and exciting in their own right, especially as they have different focuses based on their respective protagonist’s abilities and history. As the narrative progresses, the separate storylines start to come together as the various protagonists interact with each other, and the reader is gradually treated to a much more cohesive tale. I felt that these unique storylines fitted together well, and Stewart ensured that they support and strengthen each other, forming a coherent and captivating narrative. The end result is an excellent tale, filled with conflict, revenge, betrayal and magical chaos.
Stewart sets the narrative around five excellent point-of-view characters, each of whom narrates several chapters within The Bone Shard Daughter. All five of these fantastic protagonists have their own enjoyable tale to tell, and their varied narratives helped to produce a comprehensive and rich overall narrative. While each character has their own role to play in the novel, two of these characters in particular, Lin and Jovis, have more prominence then their fellows, especially as their chapters are told in the first person. Lin is the young daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, who has only recently recovered from a peculiar sickness that took away her childhood memories. Now out of favour with her father, who instead focuses on training her rival, Bayan, Lin uses her skills for climbing, exploring and thievery to steal her father’s keys and gain access to the locked rooms of the palace. With each key she gains, Lin obtains more information about her past and the secrets behind her family’s powerful bone shard magic. However, the more information she uncovers, the more she becomes certain that something is wrong, and that her father is no longer fit to be emperor. I really enjoyed the Lin storyline; not only does it give the reader the most information about this series’ distinctive bone shard magic but there is a substantial amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding Lin’s entire life which I found really fascinating to unravel. There are some really good twists involved with Lin’s tale, and this was definitely a standout part of The Bone Shard Daughter’s overall story.
The other major character is Jovis, a skilled smuggler, sailor and navigator with a knack for getting into trouble. Jovis is a fun and entertaining fellow with a heart of gold, who runs afoul of everyone while trying to find his lost love, Emahla, who was taken from him by an unknown ship with blue sails many years before. While searching for the ship, Jovis finds himself caught up in the wider story when he survives the sinking of an island, managing to rescue a small child and a strange aquatic creature he names Mephi. Returning the child to its parents, Jovis gains a reputation as a legendary hero, especially as he finds himself gaining unnatural strength and other abilities, and he soon becomes a key figure in the rebellion against the throne. Due to his likeable personality, the adorable relationship he formed with Mephi, and his action-orientated chapters, Jovis quickly grew to become my favourite character within The Bone Shard Daughter and I deeply enjoyed seeing his adventures unfold. Jovis proved to be the major bridging character of this novel, as he was the person who encountered many of the other protagonists, bringing their tales together and ensuring that they were all connected. I also liked how Jovis’s story and points of reference were so different from Lin’s, due to his underprivileged start in life, as he has seen the worst that the Phoenix Empire and the Sukai Dynasty have to offer. Jovis is also the most insightful and realistic protagonist of the bunch, able to spot the deeper and sinister motivations of some side characters that the other characters miss, and I appreciated how and why he developed these much-needed survival skills. Overall, Jovis proved to be an exceptional and enjoyable character, and I looked forward to reading his chapters the most while getting through The Bone Shard Daughter. There are a lot of questions left over when it comes to Jovis’s tale, especially with his relationship to Mephi, and it will be interesting to see how they unfold in future entries in this series.
In addition to the main characters of Lin and Jovis, there was the intriguing couple of Phalue, the Governor of Nephilanu’s daughter, and her girlfriend, Ranami. Their joint storyline, which is told in the third person, follows the two as they become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Phalue’s corrupt father, with Ranami acting as the idealistic rebel while Phalue reluctantly goes along in the name of love. This proved to be an excellent and enjoyable narrative that aims to highlight the inequality in the various classes featured throughout the empire and which seeks to explore the rebellion of the group known as the Shardless. While neither character is featured as heavily as Lin or Jovis, Phalue and Ranami easily have the most interconnected storyline, and together they narrate nearly as many chapters as either of the main two protagonists. While I quite enjoyed seeing Phalue and Ranami’s chapters unfold, I do have to admit that I wasn’t as invested in their storyline as I was with Lin’s or Jovis’s, as it just was not as interesting. This was particularly true when Jovis arrives at Nephilanu, and becomes embroiled in their rebellions, as the charismatic smuggler immediately starts to steal focus from Phalue and Ranami. I also really didn’t buy the relationship between these two as the book progressed, as there were way too many betrayals and lies by the seemingly highly moral Ranami to her girlfriend Phalue, and I am very surprised that they stayed together. Still, there were some excellent moments in this chapter and it proved really intriguing to see.
The final point-of-view character in this novel is the mysterious Sand, who awakens on an island with no clear memories of who she is or how she arrived there. Working with the similarly amnesiac inhabitants of her island, Sand attempts to find out something about her past, and swiftly determines that there is something very wrong with her life. The chapters focusing on Sand and her compatriots, which are also told in the third person, are an intriguing and compelling addition to The Bone Shard Daughter but get the least amount of prominence throughout the book. Due to the amnesiac nature of the protagonist, these chapters are shaded in mystery and uncertainty, and at first it is very unclear how they fit into the greater story, making them a little hard to get invested in. However, as the novel progresses and more details are revealed about the island and its inhabitants, the reader swiftly begins to understand just how significant the character of Sand is and what has happened to her. This was an interesting fourth storyline to this book, and while it was not featured as heavily or appeared to be as significant as the others, it is obviously going to be a major part of the series as a whole and was well set up. Overall, I was deeply impressed with each of these fantastic characters and their captivating personal storylines, and it proved to be an exceptional and powerful centre to this entire novel.
In addition to the great story and excellent characters, I also really enjoyed the unique and inventive new fantasy world that Stewart created for The Drowning Empire series. The Phoenix Empire, where the entirety of the series is set, is made up of a range of populated floating islands separated by sprawling oceans. I quite enjoy novels that feature an oceanic or nautical theme to them, and Stewart features a number of fun sequences aboard or around boats, which here are powered by burning a magical substance to gain speed on the water ways. I also liked the sequences set within the islands, as there is a particularly cool Asian influence to the people and settlements contained on them and I loved the unique and clever tale that they were able to inspire. While there are some really cool elements to this setting, such as the vast and complex royal palace where Lin roams, the highlight of this world had to be the magical constructs that are powered by bone shard magic. Each of these constructs contains a number of bone shards depending on their complexity, which give them intelligence and power, while simultaneously draining the life force out of the person from whom the shard was extracted. Stewart, through the medium of her curious character Lin, provides a detailed and compelling examination of these constructs and the magical science behind them, and I really appreciated how the author set them up and utilised them throughout the novel. These were a cool and distinctive part of The Bone Shard Daughter, and I look forward to seeing how Stewart expands on them in later books in her series.
The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is an amazing and incredible fantasy read that serves as the fantastic first entry in the cool new The Drowning Empire series and which really lived up to the hype I was hearing about it. I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I really got lost in the inventive new fantasy world and the multiple compelling character perspectives. This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to the see what happens in the series next. The second entry in this series, The Bone Shard Emperor, is currently set for release in November this year, and I think it will end up being one of the top fantasy releases of 2021.