The Bone Shard Daughter
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.
Goddammit. I was quite sure I was going to DNF by page 166, and then by page 275 I was quite sure that I wasn’t. I wouldn’t say the story takes off like a rocket during the course of those 109 pages of ambiguity and doubt, but everything certainly becomes a lot more interesting once you make it past the introduction. Anyway, long story short, I went from plotting to DNF to plotting to buy the third book, because I’m in it for the long haul. If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m low-key hoping somebody will turn this into a TV series. I would watch the shit out of a bone shard HBO show.
The Bone Shard Daughter is the first in the Drowning Empire trilogy, set on an archipelago whose member islands move of their own accord. The islands are under the control of the Phoenix Empire, currently ruled by Shiyen Sukai, the latest member of the Sukai Dynasty. His only family are his twenty-three-year-old daughter Lin, who lost her memories following a mysterious illness, and his foster son Bayan; his wife Nisong is long gone, and his palace is filled with constructs he built himself using the bone shard magic with which his ancestors drove out the Alanga, a race of magicians. He used to be more involved in human life, but over the last several years he has shut himself away, minimizing the number of human servants in the palace and spending most of his time tinkering with his private experiments. As he has delegated more and more of his duties, an entire army of constructs has spread out across the Empire, performing such tasks as executing traitors, spying on everyday citizens, and checking cargo at every island port. No matter how remote its location, every construct answers to one of Shiyen’s four advisor constructs: Tirang, Construct of War; Ilith, Construct of Spies; Mauga, Construct of Bureaucracy; and Uphilia, Construct of Trade.
Though the bone shard magicians were viewed as saviors when they defeated the Alanga and took the throne for themselves, over time the people have come to fear them, particularly as they maintain their power by taking a shard of bone from every eight-year-old child during the yearly Tithing Festival. These shards then power the constructs, but only briefly: each shard acts as both a computer chip and a battery, and they all run out sooner or later – sooner if the construct uses a lot of energy, later if it does not. The humans from whom the shards were taken generally don’t feel the effects at first, but over time they become shard-sick as their life force is drained by whichever construct is using their shard. When they die, their shards lose all power. What started as an honor (at least according to the Sukais) has become a major rift between the crown and the people, and, in the absence of the Alanga, rebellious whispers have been spreading across the archipelago, helped along by a guerrilla organization calling themselves the Shardless Few. The delicate political balance grows even more fragile with the sinking of Deerhead Island, which simply collapses into the sea one day with no explanation and very few survivors; and there are also quiet warning signs that the Alanga are coming back. It is, in short, not a great time to be a member of the ruling class, but Lin is determined to try. Even with the significant disadvantage of all her memories being gone, she sets out to teach herself bone magic, with the goal of impressing her father and getting him to acknowledge her as his heir. She is helped in this by a blacksmith named Numeen, who makes perfect replicas of her father’s keys at her request, and dogged by Bayan, who is determined to supplant her as heir.
Elsewhere in the Empire, the infamous smuggler Jovis has spent the last several years hunting the boat that abducted his wife Emahla despite his informants’ repeated attempts to tell him that she is most likely dead. His quest is interrupted when he stumbles into a lifetime membership with the Shardless Few after unwittingly gaining a reputation as a savior of Shardless children, much to his own displeasure. He is also on the run from the Ioph Carn, a kind of Mafia who take debts very seriously, and accompanied by a bizarre creature he calls Mephisolou (“Mephi”), who is named for a mythical sea serpent and seems to be a cross between a horned cat and a sea otter. His bond with Mephi grants him supernatural powers, which draws the interest of Shardless leader Gio. One favor turns into another, and he finds himself helping the Shardless overthrow the governor of Nephilanu Island. The governorship is assumed by Phalue, the governor’s daughter, but Jovis – a practiced liar – recognizes Gio as another liar and quietly warns Ranami, Phalue’s Shardless girlfriend, that Gio intended to have Phalue assassinated before she could take power. He then tries to leave the Shardless yet again, but ultimately returns to their service when he finally acknowledges that Emahla is truly dead. While Jovis is dispatched to the capital to infiltrate the palace, Governor Phalue proposes to Ranami for the tenth or eleventh time. Ranami rejected the first nine or ten proposals because she knew that her status as the governor’s wife would make her complicit in the governor’s policies, but, knowing that Phalue has begun to understand her own privilege and is working to educate herself in order to better serve her people, she accepts.
On yet another island called Maila, another kind of rebellion is brewing. Maila is a remote island at the very edge of the Empire, inhabited by people who perform one specialized task all day, every day. Their placid routine is disrupted when Sand the mango-picker falls out of a mango tree, cutting open her arm during the fall and losing the shard that was keeping her mind fogged. Though she is still forbidden to contemplate violence, she begins to remember snippets of a life spent in the Emperor’s palace, when – according to the memories implanted in her head – her name was Nisong. With the help of fellow residents Coral and Leaf, she begins to wake up the other constructs on the island, leading them in a quiet coup that ends with the successful capture of the boat that brought them all to the island. Shortly after their victory, all of the constructs are unexpectedly released from the commands that were preventing them from taking violent action, and, with nothing to stop them, they plan to leave Maila and raise an army against their imprisoner. Before they leave, Sand tells her friends to call her Nisong.
Meanwhile, Lin – who is presumably completely unaware of the existence of Maila and its population of humanoid constructs – struggles in her ongoing battle to win her father’s approval. Her journey seems promising when she reprograms Mauga and Uphilia, but goes completely to shit when Ilith reveals that her father has known all along that she has been sneaking out of the palace to visit Numeen’s shop. Even her last-ditch effort to send Numeen and his family to safety fails hideously when Tirang murders them in the middle of the night. In the aftermath of the massacre, Lin learns that she and Bayan are her father’s most elaborate constructs: Bayan is intended to become the Emperor’s new body, and Lin was created to bring Nisong back to life. The casual murder of Numeen’s entire family drives Lin to overthrow her father in a bloody coup, which, though successful, also results in Bayan’s death. After the coup, Lin goes to Shiyen’s secret lab, where she finds he has imprisoned a creature of the same species as Mephi, using her magic to power his memory machine. She frees the creature and names her Thrana after Numeen’s young daughter, then returns to the main body of the palace in time to meet Jovis and Mephi. Jovis expects to be hanged on the spot, but she instead gives him a full pardon and names him Captain of the Imperial Guard, with the expectation that he will help her stabilize the Empire by – among other things – discontinuing the Tithing Festivals. During his appointment ceremony, Jovis takes a closer look at Lin, and realizes that she has Emahla’s eyes.
I said it in the beginning, and I’ll say it again now. I want this to be a TV show. I want my real-life Mephi RIGHT NOW, because he is the best part of the book. (No offense, Lin.) I want to see more of Mephi, whether it’s relevant to the plot or not. I want to know if he and Thrana really are sea serpents, as I suspect they are. I want to see how they grow throughout the series. I especially want to know if Mephi had anything to do with the sinking of Deerhead Island, and if that outburst of power made him shrink to the size he was when Jovis found him. (I am a muddle of theories right now, most of them probably wrong.) Regardless, if anything happens to him and/or Thrana, whether it’s dying or just stubbing their webbed toes on an inconvenient corner, I am going to fucking riot. Unfortunately, the rest of the characters aren’t quite as endearing. Jovis seemed a little generic in the beginning, but he went on to steal my heart smuggler fashion, so I have nothing bad to say about him. I am similarly fond of Phalue’s relationship with Ranami, though Phalue isn’t particularly interesting and Ranami’s self-righteous recruitment style got on my nerves with unbelievable speed. I believe in her cause, but I have no patience for her solemn, judgy, you-can-save-so-many vibe. She comes off more as a cultist than a rebel, partly because she and Gio keep asking Jovis for one favor on top of another. Every time he thinks he’s done, they want something else. Granted, I don’t expect either one of them to know that they keep interrupting his Emahla quest, but I know, and their repeated interference makes them more annoying than I think the author intended.
In general the narrative style is mildly irksome because Lin and Jovis’s chapters are narrated in first-person, the others in third. I’m not really sure why Stewart decided to go this route, unless it was to set Lin and Jovis apart as the primary characters (or just to keep people from complaining that the characters all sound the same). Lin and Jovis have very distinct voices, but I suppose it would’ve been difficult to maintain such distinctions when there are so many narrating characters. I also had difficulty with Lin, who is a frustrating protagonist to follow, if only because her initial chapters are so damn slow. She gets better in the end, but it’s a long, hard slog, and I kinda wish she had been more engaging as a person, even though I know there is a very good reason she has no personality and doesn’t know anything. However, she has two books to grow and I like the direction her character is taking, which seems like a good start. She’s a little slow on the uptake and she doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor – again, she’s a construct and she’s only been around for five years – but I like that she reaches out to Bayan when she realizes her father has been pitting them against each other. I like that she’s begun to try to move away from bone shard magic, whose pitfalls she has seen firsthand. It remains to be seen whether she sticks to that, but I believe her heart is in the right place, though I foresee an awkward conversation whenever she comes face to face with Sand. Humor can come later, and I really hope it does, because otherwise she’s going to get a rude surprise when she starts working more closely with Jovis.
I can live with the characters and the inconsistent narrators, but in my opinion Stewart is asking for a little too much when she asks me to believe that Lin and Bayan have enough time to reprogram a handful of constructs while they are under attack by other constructs. Is the room the size of a football field? Do the attacking constructs suffer from the same amount of plot-mandated slowness as the Nazgûl horses who couldn’t even catch a horseless hobbit in The Fellowship of the Ring, or do they just politely wait while their fellows are reprogrammed? Even at the fastest working speed, and even assuming the constructs she’s working with are far simpler than the four advisors, reprogramming is a manual process that requires Lin to pull out a specific shard, translate the command engraved on its surface, modify the command with an etching tool, and plug it back into the right spot. She has trouble with this under normal circumstances. How the hell does she suddenly become so proficient that she can do it several times in a row while injured and under assault by multiple attackers, including two of her father’s most powerful constructs? And if the act of reprogramming knocks the construct out for a couple of minutes, how are these hastily reprogrammed constructs able to swing right into battle at Lin’s command without so much as a blink? Make it make sense, because it doesn’t. I’ll accept it if there’s no other explanation on offer, but I don’t like it.
Overall, I am mostly neutral about this book. The writing is good – it at least doesn’t suffer from some of the stylistic issues that frequently show up in debut novels – and the characters are reasonably interesting, and the story is intriguing, if a bit predictable. I guessed that Lin and Bayan were both constructs, though the resurrected-wife angle took me by surprise because I thought Shiyen was trying to recreate his actual human daughter. Sand’s identity was another mild surprise: I had thought that maybe she was the original Lin Sukai, exiled for some reason and replaced with a construct. Right now it’s unclear why the rejected constructs were preserved rather than destroyed, but my money’s on organ farm. I will say that I was not expecting Bayan to die, but it sounds as if Lin might try her hand at resurrecting him. I’d kind of like him to come back so they can support each other through what is promising to be a very difficult time, though this won’t dovetail too well with Lin’s stated goal of discontinuing bone shard magic. I suppose we’ll see. The final book is called The Bone Shard War, so I’m trying to keep my expectations in check. At this point I’m mostly just praying she doesn’t go down the Mad Queen track, the way a lot of strong female characters have done. I don’t see this ending with the Sukai Dynasty still intact, which means that Lin may not have a happy ending ahead of her. Still, Stewart may yet surprise me with the next two books. I’m hoping she will.