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?
Publication details: 23 November 2021, by Orbit. Review copy provided by the publisher.
To recap briefly (and without spoilers), The Bone Shard Daughter saw the Emperor’s Daughter Lin and renowned smuggler Jovis embroiled in a revolution, and also prevent their island kingdom from going – literally – underwater. There are also a number of mysteries around the creation and use of the bone shard constructs – animated creatures made from samples of people’s bones, which are programmed to protect the kingdom from external threats. Of course, I was always going to come back to this series for the character Mephi, who remains a delight to spend time with – who doesn’t love animal companions?
Thankfully, there are other things to love about The Bone Shard Emperor as well. I continue to be impressed by Stewart’s world-building, which takes inspiration from a variety of East Asian cultures and blends them into something that feels unique, instead of being a simple cultural analogue. As someone who grew up by the ocean, I am also particularly into the island aesthetic. Additionally, I think Stewart would make an excellent horror writer if she put her mind to it, as the entire concept of the bone-shard constructs and the tithing festival that facilitates people having their bones harvested to make them is appropriately very creepy – I found myself recoiling at several points as we learn more about the practice of making and controlling constructs.
The Bone Shard Emperor is also much more politically complex than the first book – everyone is conflicted, their loyalties tested. There are no easy or clear answers, and everyone finds themselves pulled between multiple loyalties. I’ve seen a lot of reviews say they don’t buy the romance that springs up between Lin and Jovis in this book, but it’s for this reason that I actually really enjoyed this element of the story: Stewart makes it very clear that their feelings are as much driven by them looking to process what is happening to them individually as it is about whether or not they have romantic feelings for reach other. Of course, this means there’s a lot of potential for it to all blow up spectacularly – and for it to be very messy when it does.
All that said, there were two issues for me with this book, and they’re both the same issues I had with book one. The first of these is pacing – the first half of The Bone Shard Emperor is very slow, and I feel it could have benefited from another round of editing to make it tighter, as there is a lot of unnecessary exposition. Stewart really builds up to her explosive endings – which are great – but I wish it didn’t sometimes feel like a chore to get there.
The other issue is the uneven POVs. In addition to Lin and Jovis, we have married couple Phalue and Ramani, who rule over one of the islands in Lin’s empire and Nisong, a character with a mysterious past. I typically always gravitate to the sapphics, but where Lin and Jovis feel like dynamic characters, Phalue and Ramani feel rather one-note and seem to play out the same interpersonal conflict on repeat. In addition, their contribution to the plot simply isn’t as compelling as Lin and Jovis’ story, and I think this book would have benefited from finding some other way to integrate the parts of their story that the reader absolutely had to know about, rather than having us spend time following their POVs. I’m not sure there’s much scope to change this now – given we’re two-thirds into this trilogy – but it’s a fairly significant element and the one thing that stops me recommending this series wholeheartedly.
That said, I do still recommend this series – there’s a lot of elements I love and I definitely think it’s worth giving it a shot if you haven’t already (or picking up book two).