Orbit Books recently sent me Andrea Stewart’s The Drowning Empire trilogy in anticipation of the release of book three in April. (A huge thanks for the gifted books!) The first of the trilogy, The Bone Shard Daughter was released in 2020 and is Stewart’s debut.
Holy smokes, what a debut.
The Bone Shard Daughter is Frankenstein meets Sir Kazuo Ishiguro meets epic fantasy – and the result is unique, delightful and all Stewart. Where this novel excels is not only in its distinctiveness and world building, but in character development; there is so much heart and humanness to Stewart’s cast of players that they write themselves on your skin like family.
The novel follows Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, Jovis, a smuggler, Phalue, the Governor’s daughter, and Sand, a woman who lives her days on an island collecting mangoes and trying to remember life before the island.
“Father told me I’m broken,” is the first line of the book. Lin has lost her memories following a sickness. She is to inherit the empire, but she must remember first. Her father has brought in a foster son, Bayan, who he is training to take over the empire should Lin fail to recover. The empire that is her legacy is one of bone shard magic and constructs. In order to protect the citizens from the return of the Alanga, every child is forced to “tithe” a shard of bone from their skull at an annual festival. Some don’t survive. Those who do survive wait in dread for the day their shard is placed in a construct, and they become “shard sick” as their life drains unnaturally away to power the construct. Constructs are crafted from parts of animals and sometimes humans. Commands are etched on the shards and implanted in them. Through the constructs, the Emperor rules his kingdom. They do all the work while he stays behind locked doors, tinkering on private projects in rooms Lin cannot access. Lin is the most artfully developed of characters. From feeding nuts to the constructs to craving her father’s approval, Lin is a beautiful character.
Jovis is a smuggler and wanted by the Emperor, among others. While on an island to engage in some illegal trading, he finds himself agreeing to save a child from the Tithing Festival. It’s good money, and he needs money to fund his quest to find out what happened to his wife. While fleeing the island with the boy in tow, he saves a creature from the water. The boy names it Mephisolou, after a sea serpent from folklore. Jovis calls it Mephi. Despite all his attempts not to care for the creature, it claims him. For better or worse, the two become parts of each other, and Mephi joins him on his quest for information. I absolutely love bad boy Jovis and Mephi.
Phalue is a daughter of privilege, but she’s more comfortable in armor than in the fancy clothes her father wants her to wear. She used to be a bit a playboy, loving women and easily discarding them. Then she fell for Ranami, a commoner who loathes Phalue’s father and how he rules his island. While I appreciate the sapphism, Phalue’s sections are the weakest in the novel, and the relationship with Ranami is told not built.
Sand collects mangoes every day. She doesn’t know why anymore than the others on the island know why they do what they do. Memories are lost in a fog. But one day, she falls while collecting mangoes. She cuts her arm, and the fog lifts – if just for a moment. Then everything changes. Sand’s sections are brief, each building on the last. As her memories become more than quickly forgotten flashes, Sand takes shape.
How the lives of these four connect is what drives the novel, and what makes it soar. While I’ve seen some reviews that said the novel lagged, I couldn’t put it down. Mephi, mystery, magic, and a healthy dose of revolution – what more could one ask for?
Read this book.