Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter is not just an amazing start to a new trilogy. It’s likely the best fantasy novel you’ll read this year.
Fantasy fans are truly spoiled for choice this Fall. There are so many great titles hitting shelves in the weeks ahead, and they’re all worth your time and attention. But there’s one you might not be as familiar with that I’d be remiss as a critic if I didn’t bring to your attention, folks. Because it’s not just the best new fantasy novel you’ll read this fall. It’s likely one of the best you’ll read all year.
Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter is the first installment in the “Drowning Empire” trilogy and a truly magical read from start to finish. It’s the sort of novel that’s utterly engrossing from its very first pages, with a complex, interconnected plot, compelling characters, and the sort of rich world-building that makes this genre worth reading.
The story follows Lin, the Emperor’s mysterious daughter, who can only remember the past five years of her life thanks to an unfortunate illness brought to the palace along with Bayan, a refugee ward her father once took in. She’s struggling to prove herself worth as her father’s heir and, in doing, so, is desperate to teach herself the dark and complex magic he commands.
Much of this universe operates thanks to something known as bone shard magic, a particularly gruesome and terrifying ability that is nevertheless utterly unique to this world and this story. Though the true source of the Emperor’s power is never fully explained, powered by bone shards, tiny bits of skull that each of the empire’s residents must tithe for the good of their country when they are but children. The emperor’s ability allows him to drain energy from the people whose shards he selects over the users, using that power to build, control, and animate “constructs” – Frankenstein-esque creatures cobbled together from the body parts of various animals and programmed with a series of commands.
The emperor’s constructs can range from near-human levels of complex to more basic styles meant to handle little more than a few simple tasks at a time. But, nevertheless, these creatures run much of the business of his kingdom, from trade and bureaucracy to war and manufacturing. The people, however, are beginning to chafe under the emperor’s rule, as poverty increases and more become “shard-sick”, a draining illness that takes years from your life that occurs when your bone shard is selected as part of those that power a construct.
As Lin struggles to regain her memories and decide what sort of leader she wants to be, The Bone Shard Daughter also follows the stories of several other seemingly disconnected characters. Across the seas, a governor’s daughter called Phalue finds herself drawn into working with the resistance group The Shardless Few as she learns more about the ways her father has oppressed the very people he’s supposed to serve.
Street-smart smuggler Jovis has been searching for his missing wife – and the strange, preternaturally fast boat that took her – for years with no luck. But now, as he draws closer than he’s ever been to learning the truth about her fate, he becomes a magical folk hero with the help of a weird talking aquatic cat. (Or, sort of cat. You’ll see.)
And finally, there’s Sand, whose story initially seems to be happening in a completely different book. A young woman living on a remote island with no memories of a time before she arrived there, she seems happy enough in her simple life. Until she isn’t.
The ways in which these stories all eventually collide – because of course, they do – is part of the appeal of the story, and Stewart deftly gives each of these characters their own arcs and agendas that while complimentary are definitely not always the same.
The world of the novel feels vast and sprawling, set across a variety of different migratory floating islands and a culture that must adapt to shifting seasonal needs and rules. The story deals with everything from class disparities and privilege to the rise of a revolution. But despite the complex world in which the story is set it is the novel’s characters – and the relationships that develop between them – that ultimately make it feel like something truly special.
When’s the sequel coming out, again?
The Bone Shard Daughter is available now. Let us know if you decide to add it to your to-read list this month!