The Bone Shard War
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers. Other reviews in this series can be found here.
Okay, that was a good ending. After the battle I had just getting through the second book, I really was not expecting much from this book. I did struggle a bit with the first 100 pages, but then I picked up the book one fine Saturday and I couldn’t put it down, and I finished the remaining 514 pages in two days. I am mildly infuriated because my relationship with this series has been so bumpy, and I would very much like to have any kind of consistent feeling about the bone shard world in general. On the other hand, none of my favorite characters died, so I can’t complain too much.
The Bone Shard War opens two years after the end of The Bone Shard Emperor. Lin is still the Emperor, supported by few, hated by most, distrusted by all. Honestly, Stewart could have named this series the Everybody Hates Lin Trilogy and I would not have argued. Lin’s reign has declined steadily over the last two years: Nisong and Ragan are still at large, as is Dione, and Jovis is long gone. Her vastly unpopular moratorium on witstone mining has thrown the Empire’s economy into chaos, and her ban of the Tithing Festival has resulted in the awakening of more Alanga. A few of the governors are on her side, or at least willing to listen to her, but others have joined Iloh, governor of Riya, in plotting insurrection. Her only hope seems to be the seven white-bladed swords forged by Ylan Sukai, the first Sukai Emperor, which are known to be deadly to Alanga; however, she is consistently thwarted by Ragan, Dione, and the Shardless Few, who hound her at every turn in their own quest for the swords. Worse, Nisong removes the shard that was preventing Ragan from killing, and he goes on a bloody rampage, murdering governors and razing entire islands. The only bright side – albeit not really from Lin’s point of view, except extremely indirectly – is that Nisong grows closer to Ragan’s beaten-down ossalen, Lozhi, and, in so doing, begins to question her relationship with Ragan even as it evolves into a toxic romance uncomfortably reminiscent of the original Nisong’s relationship with Shiyen.
With no friends and a lot of enemies, Lin clings stubbornly to her throne, insisting that she alone can hold the Empire together despite her own quiet doubts. Her doubts are fueled by her ineffectiveness as Emperor as much as by constant calls for her to step down in favor of a Council composed of representatives from every island. Nevertheless, she really does try to please everyone, but doesn’t even succeed in pleasing herself. Her first experiment in replacing Nisong’s surviving constructs’ human bone shards with ossalen shards – which would theoretically neutralize the constructs as a threat against the people of the Empire and allow them to live in peace – ends in disaster, and every other decision she makes comes with unseen enemies ready to accuse her of making their lives worse. Desperate for peace, she names Iloh as her official consort despite their mutual dislike, offering him the position in exchange for his assistance in bringing the other rebel governors to heel. This, too, goes completely to shit shortly after their rushed wedding ceremony, when she learns that Iloh has betrayed her to Ragan. Lin dissolves the marriage and tries to catch Ragan, but he slips into the abandoned witstone mines and deliberately sinks Riya, causing Lin to realize that the islands are fully grown ossalen who sink into the sea upon their deaths.
While Lin faces enemies on all sides, Jovis fights mostly to survive. He attempted to rescue Mephi from the Ioph Carn two years ago, but he walked straight into their trap. Nisong implanted him with bone shards during a brief freelancing period, compelling him to obey every order given to him by Kaphra, mob boss of the Ioph Carn. Forced to fake his own death, he is now known as the Maelstrom, an outlaw who attacks Imperial ships to steal from the Emperor’s dwindling supply of witstone. Over time he learns the limits of the shards, which can be evaded if he convinces himself that he has technically fulfilled the letter of Kaphra’s orders without actually fulfilling the spirit of them, and begins to disobey in small increments. He is supervised by Philine, Kaphra’s right-hand woman, who watches Jovis’s experiments with increasing exasperation but chooses not to report him as she and Jovis tentatively grow closer. Their luck finally runs out when Jovis and Mephi attempt to escape during the sinking of Riya; Philine is imprisoned aboard Kaphra’s ship, minus one eye and one ear, and Jovis is caught fleeing the island and thrown into prison as well. With nothing left to lose, they break out of their cells and stage a coup, during which Philine takes command of the Ioph Carn while Mephi summons a herd of sea serpents to carry Kaphra off of the ship and into the sea, where he presumably drowns. Jovis is freed from his bondage, and, while Philine takes the Ioph Carn on their separate way, Jovis and Mephi return to Lin – after, of course, a full raft of authorial stalling tactics – in time to join her as she attempts to defend her palace against the combined forces of Ragan and Dione.
On the other side of the conflict, Ranami struggles to defend Nephilanu from the Shardless Few, who mount a full-scale invasion and blockade while Lin and Phalue are distracted by the white-bladed swords. The assault is led by her childhood friend Halong, now an Alanga who has sided with Dione, but his authority is undercut by the unexpected arrival of Ragan. Led to the Shardless Few hideout by a handful of deserters, Ragan convinces a significant portion of Halong’s army to abandon Nephilanu and help him overthrow Lin instead, promising blood and destruction. Phalue arrives with the Imperial army shortly after Ragan’s departure but finds Nephilanu largely unguarded, and her wife and daughter no longer hostages. Seeing that Halong and Phalue cannot agree on a way forward for either Nephilanu or the Empire in general, Ranami takes control of the remaining Shardless Few with the promise that she will fulfill their original mission of putting power in the hands of the common people. Halong and Phalue both support her, and they all set sail for the capital with the intention of defeating Ragan before he can destroy more islands.
Meanwhile, Lin and Jovis reunite for the space of a passionate afternoon, but are separated almost at once when Ragan and his Shardless Few attack the palace in defiance of Dione’s attempts to negotiate. With her support faltering, and knowing that the people of the Empire need more than what one single Emperor can give them, Lin unexpectedly abdicates her throne. Dione is caught off-guard by her surrender and reluctantly accepts her offer of peace, though he remains confused and uncertain of what he truly wants. Ragan, however, has never been shy about his desire for violence, and he and his army overrun the palace, driving Lin and her surviving people into the mountains. After the battle, Nisong is given the palace as agreed, but she finds her victory marred by the men who have already ransacked every room. Deep in the caves beneath the palace, she finds a Shiyen replica and contemplates bringing him back to life. Despite her earlier desire to replicate her old life, she is shaken by her last encounter with Lin, who is perhaps the only person in either of her lives to tell her she deserves better, and also aware that her relationship with a resurrected Shiyen will not be any better than her relationship with Ragan. Knowing that she wants to be her own person instead of continually chasing the approval of men, she smothers the Shiyen replica to death and then, with Lozhi’s help, joins Lin against Ragan. Just before they set out, she tells Lin to call her Sand.
There follows a vicious, bloody struggle, which begins with Ragan trying to sink Imperial and ends with Jovis beheading him in the mines beneath the palace. Both Jovis and Sand are mortally wounded by Ragan; both are brought back to life by Lin, though not exactly as they were. Jovis loses all of his memories, with the result that he no longer remembers either Mephi or Lin, or even his own family. Overwhelmed by the expectations of those who know him, he leaves the palace to wander the islands alone in search of some form of memory. Elsewhere, Sand wakes up to find that Lin has replaced her original shards with ossalen shards, and has also removed the commands that kept her in thrall to men like Shiyen and Ragan. With her mind more or less her own, Sand settles willingly into her penance, making amends for the damage she caused by helping to rebuild the Empire. She killed too many people to expect a warm welcome among the other survivors, but learns to her surprise that Lozhi is able to bond with her, granting her the powers of an Alanga.
Following her earlier promise, Lin formally abdicates after Ragan’s death, naming Ranami as a successor of sorts: though Ranami will not rule herself, she will be in charge of assembling a ruling Council. Over the next several years, the Council begins to find its footing in the mess that is the former Empire while Thrana grows into a little island, where Lin settles down by herself. With their enmity removed, she and Dione have been working together to track down the remaining white-bladed swords (in order to dispose of them before they cause more harm), and they have also been looking for a solution to replace the Empire’s dependence on witstone. Finally, long past the time anyone might have expected him, Jovis visits Lin and tells her that he has recovered a few memories. Though his brief death broke his bond with Mephi, he has found that they were able to re-bond, and, with this knowledge in hand, he asks Lin if she is willing to rebuild their own bond. Lin gladly accepts him, and finally feels that she is whole.
Obviously I’ve cut out a lot, including a number of smaller details that – while they were sometimes too specific or just too space-taking – would have offered important context to the summary above. This ties into my primary complaint with this series, which is that these books are way too long. I think Stewart could easily have cut at least 100 pages out of each book without the story suffering. I have really struggled to succinctly summarize each book without sacrificing crucial information, and I am not satisfied with any of my three reviews because there is just so. Much. Information. The writing is good, and neither the prose nor the story is particularly difficult to follow. But Stewart inundates the reader with more information than I think is necessary, which – for me, at least – created a certain level of fatigue. More to the point, I really did not need to spend 1,609 pages watching everybody spit on Lin. I never expected her journey to be easy, but watching the whole world hate her while she fucks around and finds out for three solid books is just exhausting. This is the series finale. We should not still be watching Lin realize over and over again that she’s too focused on the big picture and not paying enough attention to the people on the ground.
The funny thing is that the length of the books would have been tolerable if Lin didn’t keep making the same mistakes. She loses her temper and makes any number of political gaffes but somehow keeps having to chastise herself for saying the wrong things to the wrong people – oh, no! She gets distracted by the Shardless Few, and they use her distraction to steal the key to one of the white-bladed swords – oh, no! She gets distracted by Dione, and he uses her distraction to keep her from figuring out that the rest of his army is attacking Nephilanu – oh, no! You’d think they’d vary their strategy a bit, but on the other hand I suppose they don’t really have any incentive to try, because Lin keeps falling for it. I was ready to throw the book across the room when she lost the key to the sword. I like Lin, and I really really really want to think better of her, but apparently tucking the key into her sash or some other hidden pocket on her person just never occurred to her. At the end of the day, she is a fundamentally trusting person who has too much faith in people while also being incredibly suspicious of everybody, and I don’t even know how that works.
In fairness to Lin, the lack of progress is more of a problem with the series itself, rather than a problem with her as a character. And it’s not that she doesn’t progress in other ways – voluntarily abdicating was a huge step for her – but the books give the impression that Stewart made them complex just for the sake of being complex. There came a point where I started yelling, “Oh, come on!” every time the characters got thwarted again. If watching Lin fail over and over and over again was unpleasant in the first two books, it was even worse watching Lin and Nisong and Jovis and Ranami fail over and over and over again until Stewart finally got bored and tied it off. While the neverending thwartings do tie into the plot in their own ways, there are so many of them that they quickly lose their impact, and a good chunk of the second and third books just feels like filler. It isn’t even enjoyable filler, because a lot of that space is taken up by Ragan, a spoiled, petulant manchild if I ever saw one.
This is a real pity, because for the most part I do like the characters. I love Lin and Jovis’s ending, though I wish they had taken Ragan down together. I’m not sure why that very pleasant duty just had to fall to Jovis specifically. (Of course, what I really mean by that is that I wish Lin had gotten the pleasure of sticking a sword into Ragan. Ragan will literally sink a whole island when he isn’t allowed to destroy whatever is on the surface of that same island, and the unkind part of me thinks he died too painlessly. I mean, I want to see some suffering here.) I also still love Phalue and Ranami, and I wish we had gotten to see a bit more of Shark and Ayesh. I even got used to Dione and Nisong/Sand, who aren’t as obnoxious in this book as they were in the last one. I am glad Dione found peace in the end; I am glad he realized his trauma was clouding his vision, and learned to move past it. I was mildly upset when the book got me to accept Nisong/Sand, but I really can’t hate anybody who is kind to an ossalen who isn’t even theirs. I might not have shown her mercy myself, but I respect Lin for offering it. All in all, I think everyone got the end they deserved, whether for good or for ill, and I have no complaints on that score. Even if I am slightly put out that Thrana is now an island and I would not be able to give her pets if I ever met her in person, I guess that’s just the way of things. (But Mephi is still pettable, right? RIIIIIIIIIIGHT?)
All that being said, I think Stewart – not unlike her protagonist – got lost in the big picture and failed to fill in some details that would have made her world more clear. I would have appreciated it if she had used some of the book’s 614 pages to illuminate some things that have never been explained, such as the sudden boom in the ossalen population – where on earth are they all coming from? have the islands been giving birth to them? if so, how do they mate? have they always been there, living quietly without humans and becoming new islands in their turn? – and the distinctions between the different human races. I don’t have a mental picture of any race other than the Empireans, who obviously are Chinese-inspired, and Stewart doesn’t offer one. Given the lack of a clear description, it really seems like Jovis’s half-Poyer heritage was only included for the sake of lampooning racism. It fills in his character a bit, but it doesn’t really do much else, and it feels like kind of a waste. Stewart also seems to have lost track of some of her smaller plot points – Phalue’s disgraced father, for instance, makes a brief appearance during the attack on Nephilanu but is never seen again afterwards, and I’m not really sure what the point of that was. I guess it’s nice that he made something of himself after his decades of sloth and overindulgence at his people’s expense, but if he really had to be included, it would have been better if he had been at all helpful during the fight with the Shardless Few or in the rebuilding of Nephilanu, or if there had been any indication at all that he was trying to connect with his granddaughter in a more meaningful way than smarmy, bribe-adjacent gifts.
On balance, I think this series is decent. If I’m not in a rush to reread it, neither am I in any particular hurry to unhaul it, which slightly annoys me because I’m pretty sure I’ve run out of room on my shelves again. I’m glad I didn’t DNF it, though admittedly this might be mostly because of the ossalen. Regardless, The Bone Shard War is the best book in the series. It may be a bit rough in some respects, but it really stuck the landing, even if Jovis’s memory loss did remind me a little too much of the ending of Chuck. (Also, don’t talk to me about Chuck. At least Stewart had the decency to tell me straight out that Lin and Jovis are definitely getting back together.) Despite my issues with the worldbuilding and Stewart’s overenthusiasm for character-torturing sub-arcs, the characters are mostly lovable, and, if you don’t exactly love the villains, at least they get what’s coming to them in the end. And for that fact alone, I am eternally grateful.