Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter (2020) and The Bone Shard Emperor (2021) have proven to be engaging and interesting epic fantasies that take unusual tacks in their narrative and setting and, by and large, repay the reader’s investment. The Bone Shard Emperor, in particular, deepens the characters and the backstory of the Phoenix Empire, improving on the occasional pacing issues displayed in the first book, which was Stewart’s first published novel.
The titles of the books both refer to the same person: Lin Sukai, who begins the story as the twenty-three-year-old amnesiac heir to her father, the Emperor, whose bone shard magic she is desperate to learn, just as she desperately yearns for her father’s approval and affection by regaining her memories from before she turned eighteen. Unfortunately for her, she has been pitted against her father’s foster-son, Bayan, in an informal competition as to which of them can learn the most, and the fastest. Stymied by her father’s habit of locking every door, Lin begins stealing and copying keys so she can learn bone shard magic for herself: from her perspective, it’s a matter of mastering first how to inscribe marks on shards, and then how to stack them together to create magical constructs. From the perspective of the imperial subjects whose shards of living bone are collected for these constructs, it’s an oppressive Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. “Constructs” as a category comprises everything from low-level soldier constructs to higher-level administrators capable of extremely complex operations: they usually take the form of fantastically modified animals, but Lin discovers that skilled practitioners like her father can create constructs that look and act human.
Smuggler Jovis is on the run from an organized crime group, the Ioph Carn, after stealing the boat they consider theirs, to continue his search for his missing wife, Emahla, who vanished seven years ago. As The Bone Shard Daughter opens, he agrees to smuggle a child out of the annual Tithing Festival, in which imperial subjects submit to public trepanning, the fragments of their skulls going to the Emperor. The official story is that only bone shard magic can defeat the sorcerous Alanga, who were vanquished centuries ago by the first Sukai emperor, and thus bone shard magic and tithing continue. Jovis escapes by the skin of his teeth as one of the floating islands that comprise the empire’s archipelago suddenly sinks without warning, and in the process acquires an unusual animal companion, whom he names Mephi.
On a neighboring island, lovers Phalue and Ranami are trying to work out their differences—Ranami is a former street orphan who now runs a bookshop, while Phalue is the daughter of the louche governor and his commoner ex-wife. Phalue and Ranami love each other, but Ranami wants Phalue to move beyond some of her knee-jerk classist views and join her in her support for the rebel group known as the Shardless Few. These rebels are definitely against the Sukai emperors and their bone shard magic (hence their name, from their refusal to submit to trepanning), but though Ranami assumes they want freedom and equality, their real intentions are somewhat unclear. Finally, the mysterious Sand awakens to herself after falling out of a mango tree on an isolated island with no memories of her past life or how she or the others with her on the island got there.
As The Bone Shard Emperor opens, Lin has just assumed the throne after discovering many of her father’s secrets and killing him, while Jovis—whose exploits in the previous book have made him something of a folk hero—has accepted her offer to become the Captain of her Imperial Guard. Both of them quickly realize that their bond with their animal companions has made them into Alanga and granted them Alanga powers—a fact that must be concealed from the rest of the archipelago at all costs, as the Alanga are still feared and hated amidst rumors that they are coming back. The presence of the Alanga in the first book largely amounted to strange artifacts and vague stories of widespread magical devastation; the second book provides more detail about their unfortunate habit of disregarding the harm they caused to ordinary people not possessed of the extremely long Alanga lifespan. But the growing bond between Lin and Jovis is hampered by the fact that they are keeping multiple secrets from each other, including Lin’s own origins and the fact that Jovis is spying on her for the Shardless Few.
Ranami and Phalue are married and Phalue has taken over the governorship from her father, which means that she is now responsible for dealing with the Shardless Few on the island and their demands that she halt shipments of valuable agricultural products in an attempt to weaken support for the Sukai dynasty. Having realized that she and her friends are discarded creations of the previous emperor, Sand has taken the name Nisong and is leading her fellow constructs on a campaign of conquest across the neighboring islands. Energized by the bounty Lin places on her father’s surviving renegade constructs as part of her efforts to end the practice of bone shard magic, Nisong decides that there can be no peace until she herself has taken the imperial throne. Meanwhile, islands are still sinking, Alanga artifacts continue to awaken, and Lin, as a totally unknown quantity who has not been seen in public for twenty years, decides to tour the empire to visit with the governors and shore up support for her rule.
The Bone Shard Emperor improves on The Bone Shard Daughter, which was already an engaging read, in several welcome respects. While the first book mostly moves along at a decent clip (essential in books of this length), there are some parts that drag, especially in the first half, and sometimes paragraphs seem to contain several paragraphs at once. The Bone Shard Emperor does not have the meandering middle syndrome that sometimes bogs down second books; the pacing is tighter and the revelations are less predictable than some of the first book’s twists, which were telegraphed clearly if you’ve read enough genre fiction. As the story continues, it leads with a nice inevitability into a set-piece battle which comprises the book’s last few chapters, and which feels suitably epic.
The setting of the books is also quite interesting, a kind of generic Southeast Asia which is emphatically not a 1:1 correlation with any countries in our world but which is unmistakably Southeast Asian, from the tropical climate to the food and clothing. It has to be said that, despite some attempts to differentiate the various islands, the archipelago as a whole seems to have more or less a monoculture, in a way that works well enough for the books but is certainly not reflective of historical (and contemporary!) reality in Asia. Stewart herself is Chinese-American.
As a longtime reader of epic fantasy, however, I find that things like the characters and the magic are just as important as the world-building, and the books amply deliver on those fronts. The bone shard magic laid out in the first book is innovative in terms of the genre and suitably creepy and complicated—the rallying cry of the Shardless Few refers to the fact that if someone’s shard is used to power a construct for too long, “shard sickness” will eventually put that person into a coma and then kill them. Jovis himself gets paid very handsomely to spirit children away from the Tithing Festival and dispenses valuable advice to parents on how to fake the scars—just as a soldier spared him during the Festival after his older brother’s death from a botched trepanning. In the second book, connections between the Alanga and the bone shard magic deepen the stakes as they are revealed through short extracts from an Alanga journal that Jovis has found, and that history continues to have real relevance to the events on the page.
By the end of the second book, Lin and Jovis seem almost to be sharing the role of protagonist, and both of them (and their fraught relationship) remain interesting and sympathetic, particularly as they wrestle with what they want to do, how they want to do it, and how they can benefit the people of the Empire without totally losing themselves. While Lin’s amnesiac perspective in the first book was slightly frustrating at times, she remains tenacious and determined to forge a different path than her father. Jovis is probably the best character in the books—a folk hero turned captain of the guard whose magical prowess is formidable but untrained and whose fighting skills remain uneven; the proverbial smuggler with a heart of gold, whose attempt to influence the Empire’s future is made with good intentions but not with the clearest judgement. His relationship with his animal companion, Mephi (and Lin’s with hers, named Thrana), is a delight, and Stewart’s twist on the animal companion fantasy tropes—neither Thrana nor Mephi knows about their own origins, leaving Lin and Jovis equally in the dark—makes for interesting plotting.
Ranami and Phalue improve in The Bone Shard Emperor as well, as they wrestle with the practical issues following Phalue’s accession to the governorship and the question of whether to adopt a street orphan whose path crosses theirs when she tries to pick Phalue’s pocket. Phalue’s perspective in particular was somewhat tedious in the first book, as “privileged person learns to reconsider her values and become an ally to the oppressed” is somewhat difficult to make compelling and, frankly, difficult to compress into the action of a novel. Having reached the point of believing in socioeconomic reform, however, Phalue is much more interesting in the second book, as she begins to question both the Sukai dynasty and the professed egalitarian dreams of the Shardless Few. Ranami’s past is also interestingly and sympathetically explored. Nisong and her crusade are both believably and frustratingly drawn, as she continues at every step to make the choice that will cause her and her friends more pain in her quest to overthrow Lin.
If there is one flag to raise about these books, it is that those looking for anti-imperial fantasy will not find it here. Ethnic divisions are not absent—Jovis is half-Poyer, the people of another wandering archipelago whose islands only come close enough to the Phoenix Empire for trade once every thirty years or so, and faces prejudice because of it—but while the question of whether the dynasty should remain is a real one for every character, Lin’s status as protagonist means that the books do not entirely come down on the side of ending the monarchy, as she still believes the throne is necessary and she’s the best person to hold it. It’s possible that could change in the forthcoming The Bone Shard War. I’ll definitely be interested to learn how Stewart brings this interesting, innovative trilogy to its close.