Book Review: The Bone Shard Daughter, by Andrea Stewart

It’s September, readers, and I still haven’t taken the time to play with this new WordPress system, but I HAVE been writing book reviews! Every now and then I write a review for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books that doesn’t work for them because of scheduling issues or because the book doesn’t match our audience. Here’s one of those reviews to get you started with your September reading! The book comes out on September 8, 2020.

The Bone Shard Daughter promised and delivered an #OwnVoices, Asian-based fantasy with a f/f romance. It also promised, as stated in the press release, “a talking aquatic kitten.” It delivered. However, I was too distracted by the promise of an aquatic kitten to notice in advance that this is grimdark fantasy, and full of triggers. I was not prepared for the large amount of child abuse and death, ableism, and incest.

We follow three main characters in alternating chapters and learn about the world and the conflicts as they go about their business:

  • Lin is the daughter in the title, the daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire. Lin is determined to overthrow her father since he spends all his time building constructs (more on constructs later) and does not rule the kingdom effectively. Also he’s just generally an asshole. 
  • Jovis is a smuggler who has spent years searching for his true love who was kidnapped by an unknown person. Through a complicated series of events he winds up with the talking ocean kitty, Mephi. He does not want to join a rebellion; he just wants to find his girlfriend. I’m sure you can guess where that’s going.
  • Phalue is the daughter of a governor and is in love with Ramani. Ramani is a fisherwoman and a rebel who wants Phalue to join the rebellion. These two women have an established relationship and their problems are related to politics, class, and family loyalty. While this kingdom has many problems, apparently (and refreshingly) homophobia is not one of them. They have the only romance in the book.

The Emperor rules by using “constructs.” These constructs start off as animals that are grown? Engineered? I didn’t understand. They are organic, not automatons and they are usually hybrid (for instance, there’s a spy construct that is part crow and part fox). There’s no explanation of how any of this works, either in terms of how they are created or in terms of how they live. Are they, technically, alive? Does what happens to them count as animal abuse? My husband and I interpreted this differently – I thought of the constructs as engineered animals with feelings despite what I must admit is a glaring lack of evidence, and my husband say them as non-sentient. Regardless, I loathed this idea with every fiber of my being, people, and it gets worse because…

GROSSGROSSSGROSS

….Every child in the kingdom has a piece of bone removed from their skull. Most, but not all, survive the operation, which is carried out without anaesthetic as part of a public ritual.

 The Emperor carves instructions on the bone shards and reaches into the constructs (this involves magic) and just shoves the shards right into their bodies. Lin’s quest for power involves reprogramming as many of her father’s constructs as possible. To me this process seemed like animal abuse. At least some of the constructs appear to be at least as aware and intelligent as a dog or cat and several use language and the whole thing just squicked me the hell out and that’s before we get to the reveal that there are human constructs who work as slaves.

CLEARLY this book is better suited for grimdark fantasy fans than for me. I’m just here for the mercat! As far as recommending this book to grimdark fans, it’s a mixed bag. The actual plot is pretty basic and predictable – Lin tries to win her dad’s approval and, failing that, to depose him, Jovis and Phalue try (separately) to avoid becoming freedom fighters, and we wait for Book 2. 

This might be too simplistic for some grimdark fans, and there’s a lot of optimism in the story so maybe it’s not so much “grimdark” as it’s “slightlyseriousdark.” It also depends big time on “because magic” as an explanation for things as opposed to dealing with the practical ramifications of, for instance, creating animal hybrids. This is a big mileage-will-vary thing – some people have no problem with aspects that drove me up the wall. Just know that that’s how this book works.

The exploration of the world from different geographical and class perspectives is interesting, and everything is laid out skillfully without giant infodumps. I kept wanting to know what would happen next, which is quite an accomplishment for a book that consists entirely of setting all the pieces on the board (this is very much an “intro to the series” book). Even though the plot is predictable, there were certain revelations that weren’t, and that added to the suspense. It’s very refreshing to see a fantasy story that isn’t set in a quasi?-European background, and the debates about ethics and privilege are certainly relevant. 

As with most series, it’s hard to recommend this one without knowing how things will wrap up eventually. However, I know that many of our readers are very triggered by animal abuse and I interpreted the making of and controlling of constructs as abusive. The book is undeniably good at creating a horrific situation, one in which the lives of an Empire’s subjects are drained literally (using a bone shard slowly drains life from the person it came from) and figuratively (most of the Empire’s subjects are worried about future invasion from another force and live in poverty). It’s concerns are all too relevant.

Should you read this book, do so knowing that it has a lot of triggers and ends on a cliffhanger. It also has islands and smugglers in boats and a talking aquatic cat, all of which are excellent things. There’s an actual cave hideout. There’s a lot of great sounding food. And even though I realized very early that I would not enjoy reading this book, I could not stop. This book is the first in the “Drowning Empire” series.

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