The Bone Shard Emperor: A step backwards

The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea StewartThe Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea StewartThe Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart

Andrea Stewart’s debut novel, The Bone Shard Daughter, was an engaging beginning to a new fantasy trilogy, showing some originality in setting and magic system, introducing a few interesting characters, and incorporating several complex moral questions. While it also had its fair share of weaknesses (half the characters were far less interesting, a major implausible narrative contrivance, and some predictable plotting), they were outweighed by the novel’s strengths enough to make it a solid recommendation. Unfortunately, although that also holds true in the follow-up, The Bone Shard Emperor (2021), it’s only just barely, leading to my thinking that big fans of the first book will probably enjoy this one nearly as much, while those who found the first to be a bit of a mixed bag, as I did, might want to hold off to see what happens with book three of THE DROWNING EMPIRE. Warning, there will be some inevitable spoilers for The Bone Shard Daughter.

The sequel picks up shortly after the end of its predecessor, with Lin (the titular daughter of book one) trying to consolidate her rule as the new Emperor, as well as pry out her tyrannical father’s secrets regarding constructs, replicas, and how to deal with the possible return of the Alanga (the thought long-gone group of uber-powerful magic users). She also has to deal with what she learned about her own past, the sinking of several of the archipelago Empire’s islands, a revolt inside the Empire against its system of government by a group known as the Shardless Few, and an island-to-island invasion by an army of constructs. To accomplish her goals, she begins an island tour in an attempt to have the governors pledge fealty to her and lend her soldiers to deal with the construct invasion.

She’s aided in all the above by her Captain of the Guard, Jovis — former smuggler, current folk hero, and also a spy for the Shardless Few, though he’s conflicted in that role, seeing both the risk of absolutist rule but also seeing how hard Lin is trying to protect people. He also has his burgeoning Alanga powers to both learn and keep secret and remains entangled with the criminal underground he’s so tried to avoid.

Meanwhile, having overthrown her father the governor, Phalue and her lover Ranami are trying to better the lives of their people on the island and instill a more fair and responsive form of government. Lastly, the final POV character from book one, Sand, is the one leading the construct invasion.

The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea StewartWith regard to character, Lin remains compelling in her struggles: to gain and maintain her role as Emperor, to find out the truth about herself, to deal with the trauma of her relationship with her father, to suss out the secrets of the Alanga, and to walk the fine line between necessity and principle to protect the Empire and its people (and herself). Jovis is engaging as ever and adds his own share of moral complexity to the story. Phalue and Ranami, whose sections in the first book were the weakest, are improved here, with a more interesting arc, though that storyline remains less strong than the Lin-Jovis one. Sand, unfortunately, is a bit too much of a stock villain type, which felt like a missed opportunity as her past lent her the possibility of a far more emotionally rich character arc, one we all too rarely get flashes of potential of. Two new characters add even less to the story. One is a tough street orphan who acts like all the other tough street orphans you’ve seen in fantasy. The other is a character whose intent I think we’re supposed to be confused about but which really is pretty obvious all along to the reader, if not to the main characters.

Plot is far more problematic in The Bone Shard Emperor than in the prior book, which had its own occasional plotting issues. Pacing feels way off here, and the tour of the islands lends the book both a meandering, aimless sort of structure but also one that feels pretty contrived. Contrivance is an issue throughout, with some clunky exposition, some convenient timing of particular events, and several implausible events, the worst of which was so unbelievable that after some marginal notes that included comments like “doesn’t make sense,” “don’t buy this,” “what the hell,” and “sigh,” ended with a comment not printable in a daily newspaper. Unsurprisingly, one of the contributing elements to that scene was the romance between Jovis and Lin, which was another plot problem as I found it to be by far the least interesting (and most annoying) part of their story: predictable, trite in spots, and overall a distraction. Fight scenes, whether smaller scale or big climactic battles, were muddy logistically in terms of placement, timing, and strategy (I asked more than once, “why don’t they just …”).

The archipelago setting remains better in theory than execution, with the islands still mostly seemingly indistinguishable. It was also hard to get a sense of scale for the Empire in terms of size and population, with most of it appearing to be small towns or villages, which didn’t always seem to match the language of the Empire.

The Bone Shard Daughter was able to overcome its flaws because they tended to be singular occurrences, save for the weak characterization/plotting of Phalue and Ranami’s storyline. Here, though, the issues are both more frequent (more contrivances, more fuzzy fight scenes) and more pervasive (the ongoing will they – won’t they thread, the is-he-a-good-guy-or-a-bad-guy thread, the consistent pacing issues, etc.). The Bone Shard Emperor isn’t a bad book, but rather than a pretty good book occasionally marred by a slip up now and then, it’s a flawed book that occasionally rises to its potential.

So, as noted in the intro, if you liked the first book a lot, there’s probably enough here so that while you might be a bit disappointed, you’ll still mostly enjoy it. But if you were a bit bothered by those occasional nagging flaws in book one so that the experience of reading it was more mixed, I’d recommend pausing to see which of the two first books the third follows in the steps of.

Published in November 2021. In this action-packed magical fantasy epic, a heroine at the head of a powerful empire confronts a raging battle as she’s forced to do whatever it takes to restore peace. The Emperor is Dead. Long live the Emperor.  Lin Sukai finally sits on the throne she won at so much cost, but her struggles are only just beginning. Her people don’t trust her. Her political alliances are weak. And in the north-east of the Empire, a rebel army of constructs is gathering, its leader determined to take the throne by force.  Yet an even greater threat is on the horizon, for the Alanga–the powerful magicians of legend–have returned to the Empire. They claim they come in peace, and Lin will need their help in order to defeat the rebels and restore peace. But can she trust them?  

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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