The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
It is actually hard to believe that The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is her debut - Inspired by multiple Asian-cultures, the first book of the Drowning Empire trilogy reads like a seasoned, epic fantasy that features a vast and fascinating world, a well thought-out magic system - all of this headlined by well rounded interesting characters, whose motivations, flaws and inspirations drive the narrative forwards in fluent confident prose, that never takes the foot off the pedal.
The broad contours of the narrative in this first of a series goes like this: Lin Sukai is the heir to the The Phoenix Empire ruled by a reclusive Emperor, who unfortunately isn't willing to accept Lin as his successor until she proves herself worthy enough to take on the reins. Lin is obviously frustrated by this but more importantly, by the fact that she has no memory of her last four years before she woke up, supposedly from a coma recovering from a disease. And the Emperor sets her on a task to solve little puzzles, like a locked-room mystery. Except this time, the whole castle itself is the locked room, with its myriad locked rooms and underground lairs.
Then there is Jovis - the most successful smuggler on the seas of the empire, who is on a mission to find his missing wife, Emahla. She was kidnapped by this mysterious person who took her off on a boat with blue sails and he has been chasing that ghost forever now. But a chance opportunity to make money makes him rescue this child from being sacrificed as part of the "tithing festival" ( more on this, in just a little while!) and becomes the un-intended folk hero of songs, with a lot of parents around the set of islands coming forward with money to do similar acts. But Jovis is no-one's hero. But his greatest rescue act may not be the small children but this mysterious kitten-like creature he plucks off the sea, to save him. A 'pet' he names Mephi after one of the folk heroes.
While the main narrative is propelled forward by these two characters, there are quite a few other secondary characters who fill in the missing details about this drowning empire. There is Ranami, an idealist who longs to bring economic reforms to her countrymen and thinks the fastest way to get there is the help of this anarchist group of rebels known as the Shardless - a revolution is under way. But the sacrifices they all need to make is greater than what they have bargained for. And the most mysterious part of the story is the story of Sand - a lady on a far-off island whose memories have been "fogged" - and she knows she is a different person, tasked with something far greater than just picking off the mangoes on this island.
The best part about Bone Shard Daughter is the wondrous world building and of course the, pacing - that never flags even for a moment as we are taken on a headlong adventure set in these mysterious set of islands that are drowning one after the other. A world where the heft of a bloody history hangs heavy, there is the threat of long-dead creatures known as the Alanga returning back. While the Sukai emperors were the ones to have vanquished these creatures, the current emperor lives his life, hiding behind the tall walls of his own castle - content to rule with the help of his "constructs". What constructs, you say? Clever little creatures made up of different animal body parts, each serving a purpose - and the purpose "written" into it through little bone-shards inserted into them. This, I thought, was bloody genius.
The bone-shard magic is complicated, and only passed on from one generation of the rulers to the next. And this is what Lin is struggling to unravel. Another deft touch of genius from Andrea, as she takes us into the depths of what constitutes bone-shard magic as Lin struggles to uncover the workings. By setting off Lin's struggle to uncover the truth about herself and also her father, an Emperor whose secrets are hidden behind locked doors and in the complex workings of the constructs, Andrea shapes an interesting struggle. Jovis, with his own personal agenda that gets trumped up in the cause of something greater as his legend grows bigger than his dreams is also a very nuanced character. His relationship with Mephi - 'more-friend-than-pet' is one of the most refreshing aspects of the whole story and I just loved-loved Mephi.
The first book solves for the biggest conflict presented - namely Lin's focus on discovering herself and the secrets of this empire - on the brink of ruin and revolution but there are definitely more epic ground-shaking stuff to come. It's a great set up and I cannot wait to get back, to see where the journeys of Lin and the others are going to take them. A world inspired by multiple Asian cultures, wholly fascinating, rich and vibrant with lots more stories to come, the Drowning Empire definitely establishes Andrea as a brilliant new voice of epic fantasy to watch out for. Highly recommended, possibly the debut of the year for me and one of the best books I have read as well, this year.