The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.
I’m again late in reading this book despite having an advance copy but I just couldn’t make myself pick it up earlier. But I have been quite excited about it for a while now and I have to say, it lived up to all my expectations.
I don’t think I have been a fan of island/sea navigation based stories before but I’ve happened to read quite a few of them this year and they’ve all been a lot of fun. This world is even more fascinating because it’s made up of floating islands and I’ve never seen that before. I loved how the author gave us enough information about how the empire and the governorships run across all the islands, but the writing is so cleverly done that we never get bogged down in details. We get to see the perspectives of both people in power with privilege, as well as the common people whose lives are much worse.
While the politics of the world itself was so interesting to read, it’s the titular “Bone Shard” magic thats the best part of this book. As everyone who reads my blog knows, Foundryside is one of my favorite fantasy novels and I always call the scriving magic in it one of the best ever. And there were quite a bit of similarities between the two, but this book took the concept of etching commands on objects to make them obey you to a whole another level and I was instantly captivated. It still has enough resemblance to database management and sql scripting, so that was an absolute joy to read. I would recommend both this book and Foundryside just for the sake of their magic systems, because I’ve come to realize that I love this kind of concept which is so familiar to me.
There are quite a few reviews out there where the readers were surprised to see multiple POVs in the book because the blurb gives an entirely different impression, and I feel that’s a disservice to this amazing debut. But like always, I went in knowing this information, so I wasn’t jarred and really enjoyed getting to know so many different characters. I also decided to listen to the audiobook despite having the eARC because listening seems to be working for me during this pandemic, and the multiple narrators blew me away with their storytelling styles. The pacing may seem a bit slow but the buildup of the story is excellent, and the author takes us on a journey that gets exciting through every chapter. The way that all the multiple storylines converge is also done masterfully, with some excellent foreshadowing as well as misdirection, and I was thrilled when the twists and reveals happened.
Not all of the characters get the same page time, but we quickly come to like each one of them on their own merits and what they bring to the overall story – but Lin and Jovis can be considered the main driving forces in this debut. Lin is the Emperor’s daughter and wants to prove herself to him, that she is a worthy heir. She is resourceful and resilient, strong and compassionate, while also being willful enough to do what’s necessary to achieve her goals. I really admired how she kept going despite any obstacles and can’t wait to see what she does next. Jovis on the other hand has his own goal but is thrust into a bigger game that he doesn’t ask to be a part of, but nevertheless can’t abandon. He tries to come across as a selfish smuggler with no care for anyone, but he does have a bleeding heart and I fell in love with him immediately. And his relationship with his animal companion Mephi is the most adorable ever, and one of my top highlights of this book.
Phalue and Ramani are an established sapphic couple and it’s again something I see so rarely, that it was refreshing. While they may not have many chapters between them, I think as the governor’s daughter and a member of the rebellion respectively, they give unique glimpses into the problems affecting the empire and how indifferent the ruling class is. Ramani is also a great foil to Phalue’s privileged life, making her see the truth of the common people. Phalue does have the bigger character arc, understanding and learning what she can do with her power, but I felt that Ramani also changed in the process, realizing that idealism and governance might not always go hand in hand.
Sand is the final POV and most mysterious of them all and to be honest, we still don’t know much about her at all. Except that the twist in her arc towards the end was something that I did not see coming at all and it sets up for a very unexpected thorn in the side for every other character’s plans in the sequel.
There are many inherent themes across the story but the author executes it in such a way that they are very understated but also clear if we are looking deeply. I think the bone shard magic system itself presents a very existential and realistic question, that is also relevant to us – how much should common people be ready to sacrifice for the sake of security provided by the rulers; and is shortened life span and early unexpected death really worth what the emperor provides, especially when there is no accountability and the sacrifice is literally forced on the people. The other aspect of the story is about rebellions and it’s leaders – the foot soldiers of a rebellion might be full of commoners who believe in the cause and other idealists who have very noble intentions; but coups are never bloodless and power changing hands is not as peaceful or easy as making plans or giving lofty speeches.
To conclude, this is an absolutely fantastic adult SFF debut with a unique world, intriguing magic system, politics of empire and rebellions, and an ensemble of beautifully written characters. I never try to recommend books using comparisons, but in this case I would like to say that if you loved the magic system of Foundryside, you should totally checkout this book. A great story with even better cast of audiobook narrators, this is now clearly in my favorites of the year list and I can’t wait to read what happens next.
PS: Thank you to Orbit Books and Netgalley for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.