The Bone Shard Emperor
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.
Welp. Last book I said I hoped Stewart wouldn’t take Lin down the Mad Queen track, but it appears I was worried about the wrong woman. This was a difficult book to get through, as was its predecessor, largely because I find the characters so infuriatingly frustrating. As with the first book, I don’t think this was the author’s intention. Nisong is officially at the top of my brand-new list of the worst characters of all time, and I don’t even know if that’s her fault.
The Bone Shard Emperor picks up a few months after the events of The Bone Shard Daughter. Lin is the Emperor and the last Sukai standing, though she wasn’t actually born to the Sukai family and is in fact a constructed human created by her purported father, Shiyen Sukai. She is nominally supported by the ex-smuggler Jovis, who accepted a position as her Captain of the Guard in order to spy on her for the Shardless Few, and both of them are accompanied by Thrana and Mephi, their talking sea serpent companions (called “ossalen”). Though Lin was created in the likeness of Nisong, the previous Emperor’s deceased wife, Shiyen was unable to recreate Nisong’s mind because he burned her real body before he learned to preserve memories. Thus, while Lin has a handful of scattered memories and the ability to perform bone shard magic, her soul is entirely her own, and she is capable of feeling and doing things Shiyen never intended. This makes her reign as Emperor more difficult than it would already have been, as she struggles to serve a population that doesn’t know her or trust her to have their best interests at heart. She also faces insurrection from the Shardless Few, who are led by a one-eyed man calling himself Gio, and an army of decommissioned constructs led by an older Nisong construct, formerly called Sand.
This is but a fraction of the problems facing the Phoenix Empire, as its member islands are all ruled by governors with ideas of their own. Lin’s every decision is scrutinized and challenged, from the bounty she places upon her father’s surviving constructs to her desire to develop the witstone mines on a small island. When she later accepts that witstone may be connected to the sinking of Deerhead and Unta Islands and issues a moratorium on the mining of witstone throughout the Empire, that decision, too, is challenged and defied until another island sinks into the sea without a trace. As a further complication, she and Jovis begin to learn more about the powers granted to them by their bonds with Thrana and Mephi, and realize that they may be Alanga. They grow closer when they begin to translate a journal written by the legendary Alanga Dione, but their tenuous peace fractures further with the arrival of a strange Alanga monk named Ragan. Later Jovis finds himself in trouble with the Ioph Carn yet again, and, though Lin saves him and Mephi from an untimely death, their relationship completely falls apart when she learns that he has been spying on her.
While Lin fights to hold the Empire together, Governor Phalue faces significant challenges to her own rule on Nephilanu Island. She and Ranami have now been married for several months and her people adore her, but she remains torn between her affection for her father and her need to keep him contained. Gio has been an ever-present threat, and, though they reach an uneasy agreement, there has already been at least one attempt to assassinate her. Even her decision to teach swordfighting to a plucky orphan named Ayesh is not without its difficulties: Ranami dislikes Ayesh on sight and becomes convinced that she is a spy, an impression not helped by Ayesh’s habit of lingering in doorways and stealing food from the kitchens. With pressure mounting between Lin, Gio, the sinking of the islands, and the increasing threat of the construct army in the northeast quadrant of the Empire, Phalue begins to navigate her own way between her responsibilities and her political obligations in spite of Gio’s efforts to remove her from power. After some hard conversations and soul-searching, Phalue and Ranami agree to formally adopt Ayesh – who, it should be noted, is not a spy – right before Phalue leaves Nephilanu to join her forces with Lin’s as they make their last stand against the construct army.
Meanwhile, Nisong – still seething over her imprisonment on the remote island of Maila and infuriated by the bounty placed upon her and others like her – works her way to the center of the Empire at the head of her army of constructs, killing and burning as she goes. To increase her army, she begins to collect bone shards from her victims and uses them to raise the dead, whether human or animal. Her stated goal is to create a home that is safe for herself and the constructs who accompanied her from Maila, but privately she vows to make the humans pay before installing herself as Emperor. Her resolve remains unshaken as she begins to lose all her friends from Maila, and each successive loss only makes her double down on her goal of causing absolute chaos. I’m not saying she sacrifices them willingly, I’m just saying more of them would be alive if she didn’t have such a boneheaded need for violence and carnage. Her handful of true friends dwindles down to three during the course of her quest, and by the time she and Lin finally meet she is down to one friend and one army of shambling, sloppy constructs. But that would make things too easy for Lin, and the final battle is almost ruined when Ragan attacks her in an attempt to force her to reveal herself to her people as an Alanga.
Ragan is both successful and unsuccessful in his bid to violently out Lin as an Alanga: successful in that he does succeed in forcing her to use her magic to defend herself, unsuccessful in that it doesn’t immediately turn her army against her. His plan goes completely to shit when Gio arrives at the head of the Shardless Few and not only reveals himself as an Alanga of immense power, but also swats Ragan away like a fly. (Also, that was a great moment.) Despite Ragan’s bullshit, Lin finally gets close enough to implant him with a shard from the horns Thrana shed earlier – which means they should actually be called antlers, but we won’t get into that – which she has engraved with a command forbidding Ragan from killing. With Ragan out of the way, the construct army is completely smashed, leaving Nisong as the sole survivor. Her one remaining friend, Coral, dies shortly after the battle; Nisong tells her that she will give up on her vengeance and take her constructs back to Maila to leave peacefully, but, when Coral has breathed her last, goes after Ragan in the hopes of allying with him against Lin. In the aftermath of the battle, Jovis finally declares his love to Lin but also has to leave immediately, because the Ioph Carn somehow sneaked onto the battlefield and kidnapped Mephi. When all is said and done, Lin tries to make peace with Gio, whom she correctly identifies as the legendary Dione, but he flatly refuses to have anything to do with the Sukai family, whose ancestor slaughtered the Alanga in order to found the Phoenix Empire.
Back on Nephilanu, Ranami realizes that Phalue’s father has been leaking information from his jail cell in exchange for his eventual freedom. She frees him herself, but also gives him some supplies before expelling him from the palace. With the former governor gone and (theoretically) no longer able to interfere with Phalue’s reign, Ranami and Ayesh get an extra piece of good news when they learn that Phalue survived the battle and is on her way home. Their joy is tempered by Ranami’s lingering suspicions, which drive her to follow Ayesh after yet another food-thieving expedition. She follows her out of the palace and all the way down to the jungles by the shore, where she learns that Ayesh has been caring for a young ossalen named Shark. Ayesh rescued Shark when her home island sank; they arrived on Nephilanu together, and they have bonded in the way that Lin and Jovis have bonded with Thrana and Mephi. Realizing that Ayesh has been hiding Shark out of fear, Ranami encourages her to bring Shark home with her, privately vowing to be a good parent to her.
The good stuff first: Ranami has won me over. I didn’t like her much in the first book because she came off as self-righteous and demanding in her interactions with Jovis, and Phalue was a little bland, but I love them both so much now. Even if Ranami is instinctively biased against Ayesh, she comes to realize that her bias was caused by her own trauma as a former street orphan, and she works hard to overcome it. She is the one who reaches out to Ayesh with an offer of adoption despite her reservations, both past and present. I love her for her unquestioning acceptance of Shark, who is – objectively – a very strange pet. I think it’s adorable that she and Phalue have unconsciously begun to adopt each other’s traits: Phalue begins to emulate Ranami’s suspicion, Ranami begins to embrace Phalue’s spontaneity. They work so well as a couple, and I have no doubt that they will be wonderful parents. If they haven’t spontaneously adopted another fifty orphans by the end of the series, I will be mildly surprised.
I was also pleasantly surprised by Lin, who begins to come into her own as the Emperor despite some very rocky ground. Unfortunately, this does tie into my largest problem, which is that this book is exhausting. It is very tiresome to spend 500 pages watching Lin fail again and again and again and again before she finally begins to see some success. It didn’t work in the first book, and it didn’t work in this one either. Nisong and Ragan are equally exhausting, in addition to being unapologetically infuriating. They were hard enough to take individually; I am not looking forward to seeing what they’ll be like as a pair. I understand Nisong’s anger, and her story does encompass a general discussion on the very human idea of who should be allowed to live and who should be forced to quietly bow out of the world. Her existence, and the existence of the other humanoid constructs, poses an unanswerable question: do constructed humans still count as humans? Should they be allowed to live in peace, or should they be dismantled before they can drain the lives of the humans whose shards were used in their construction? (More troubling question: will Ragan begin to drain Thrana’s life? Only time will tell.) Is it dehumanizing to set a bounty for them when they are not of human born, can they be said to have souls of their own, are they responsible for behaving in a way that their unwitting memory donors would have behaved? More to the point: is Nisong truly at fault for her ugly personality when she is a more exact copy of the original Nisong than Lin ever was or will be?
I have no answer for the question of who deserves and who does not, but, for the record, I would say that while Nisong is not responsible for her source material, she is absolutely responsible for every decision she makes. To say otherwise would deny her even the agency granted by personal responsibility. And the woman on whom she was modeled was an indefensibly destructive person who was almost eerily well-suited to Shiyen, himself a nasty piece of work, but that isn’t a defense for the constructed Nisong’s actions. Had her decline into violence been more gradual and less deliberate, I might have had some sympathy. As it is, the violence is a building block of her grand plan. She has a right to be angry, she really does. It’s just that I cannot get behind a character so determined to do exactly the wrong thing. She refuses again and again to turn from the path she has set for herself. She never has any kind of answer to her friends’ very simple question: how many of them have to die before she is satisfied? (It now turns out that the answer is all of them, even if she never intended their deaths.) If she was supposed to be terrifying, she isn’t. She is a lost, middle-aged psychopath who would drive the Empire into extinction if she ever took the throne, and she is fucking annoying.
Ragan is, if possible, even more annoying than Nisong. I hate everything about him. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities. I hate his entitlement and his impatience, I hate the way he treats Lozhi, I hate the way I can so clearly visualize him raising his stupid supercilious finger every time he corrects Lin, and I hate that he keeps pushing his own idiotic agenda while Lin is literally in the middle of a battle that will determine the fate of an entire Empire. I get that he doesn’t care about humans, but I don’t see much point in crowning him king of the ashes. I genuinely have no idea what he wants, aside from a childish desire for absolute power. I have no idea why he’s so bent on exposing Lin as an Alanga, or what his intentions were if he had succeeded in turning her people against her. Nothing he does makes sense. Let me be clear here: I also hate Gio, who is as aggravating as Ragan and Nisong, but I will still cheer every time he addresses Ragan as “boy.” That was hands down the most satisfying moment in the book, and it was almost enough to cancel out my more negative feelings about Gio. Between Nisong, Gio, Ragan, and the barely-seen Ioph Carn, this series has the most irritating line-up of villains I’ve ever seen in my life, and I am not here for it.
Villains aside, my biggest problem – not just with this book, but with this series – is that Stewart does not provide a clear picture of this world that she’s built. The magic system is hazy at best. It was easier to understand in the first book, before bone shards were getting inserted into corpses and living people. The characters are not easy to picture. Until Lin and Nisong met face to face, I had no idea that Nisong was supposed to be middle-aged. To be honest, given the tropical island vibe and her occupation as a mango-picker back when she was still called Sand, I was picturing something closer to Moana. I still have no idea how old Jovis is, though I’m estimating mid- to late-twenties, and, after two books and almost a thousand pages, I don’t have a clear understanding of what the Alanga actually are. The first book gave me the impression that they were an ethnic group distinct from the Empireans and the Poyers, but this book has made it clear that humans can become Alanga, which makes it seem more like a title along the lines of “sorcerer” or “magician.”
I also had some initial confusion about the constructs, which I had originally thought were like automatons. I wasn’t expecting them to have minds of their own, or to age or to bleed or to feel, though I have a better picture of them now that I know they’re not robots. Given the length of the book, I was hoping it would be packed with information that would clear up some of my confusion about the world, but it confused me more. I don’t like that Lin can just stick a shard into anybody and have it work, and that isn’t how bone shard magic was first described to me. Bone shard magic demands absolute precision. You can’t just tell me that it suddenly works on people who aren’t constructs. I also feel that the synopsis for this book was a little misleading, because it clearly states that multiple Alanga come out of hiding to offer their services to Lin, when in fact there is only the one. I was imagining something more akin to a diplomatic mission rather than a roaming idiot with his eye on a larger prize than he can realistically handle.
Ultimately, I came out of this book tired and frustrated, with zero hype for the next book. I’ll still read it, but I have no faith that any of my questions will actually be answered, and at this point I’m kind of wishing I’d DNF’d The Bone Shard Daughter back when I still had a chance to get out of this mess. There are elements of the series that I like, among them Jovis’s wry, self-deprecating humor; and, if nothing else, I will read the third book for the sake of the ossalen, whom I still love. I stand by my earlier statement that Mephi is the best part of the book, and I’m looking forward to learning more about Shark and Lozhi. But The Bone Shard Emperor left me tired before I was even halfway through it, and, if this read has been any indication, I’m in for a bumpy ride with The Bone Shard War.