Title: The Bone Witch
Author: Rin Chupeco
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication Date: March 2017
Hardcover: 432 Pages
An Amazon Best Book of the Month!
A Publishers Weekly Most Anticipated Young Adult Book of Spring 2017!
In the captivating start to a new, darkly lyrical fantasy series for readers of Leigh Bardugo and Sabaa Tahir, Tea can raise the dead, but resurrection comes at a price…
Let me be clear: I never intended to raise my brother from his grave, though he may claim otherwise. If there’s anything I’ve learned from him in the years since, it’s that the dead hide truths as well as the living.
When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. But Tea finds solace and guidance with an older, wiser bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training.
In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha?one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles…and make a powerful choice.
Memoirs of a Geisha meets The Name of the Wind in this brilliant new fantasy series by Rin Chupeco!
Standalone or Series: Book 1 in a planned series
How did I get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): Hardcover
It all begins when Tea’s older brother dies.
Her friend, her protector, the real one who cared for her and raised her in her large family of sisters, Fox’s death is devastating. Thirteen-year-old Tea, on the cusp of puberty, feels an irresistible pull from within–and draws a rune that raises her brother from the grave. (As her familiar, no less.)
Tea, you see, is a bone witch–that is, an exceedingly rare type of witch, who can raise the dead, and who are feared by all. As Tea’s power is undeniably strong, she is whisked away from her family and taken to the capitol by her new mentor and the only other bone witch in the kingdom, Lady Mykaela, to train as an asha for House Valerian. There, Tea quickly learns that not all asha are created equal and as the years pass and her skills grow, she must choose how to use her nascent powers–no matter what the personal cost.
Ah, The Bone Witch. I am a huge fan of Rin Chupeco, having read and loved both The Girl in the Well and The Suffering, so I was very eager to see her take on traditional dark fantasy. And, I’m very happy to report that The Bone Witch–while it doesn’t quite have the snap and impact of her prior two novels–is damn good.
First, I loved the idea of the world and the concept of heartglass, its corresponding colors showing its possessor’s mood and powers. Everyone has a heartglass which they must wear around their necks at all times–the heartglass and the soulstuff within is a source of power and the essence of the bearer’s heart. At puberty, the potion within the heartglass changes color to reveal its wearer’s gift–for young Tea, her heartglass glows silver after she has inadvertently raised her brother from the dead, and shows she is not just any magically talented child, but a bone witch capable of drawing the runes of the dark. I also love the traditions that are tied to heartglass–we meet the forgers of these glasses, who must pull memories from subjects (in serious Harry Potter style pensieve fashion) in order to concoct their potions. Then, there’s the tradition of literally giving one’s heart away–swapping heartglasses with one’s true love, in a show of ultimate trust and devotion. We see how this act, too, can have horrible consequences.
Finally, most importantly from a world building perspective, I very much liked the concept of asha–women who have great abilities to wield elemental magic, and who are selected by an oracle to become true sorceresses.1 The book’s description and several reviews compare the asha order to that of Geisha, which is kinda close but not quite right: similar to traditional Geisha, the asha are often dancers and performers, who attend parties with influential members of the kingdom and attract patrons for economic support and the glory of their particular asha house. However, this is just one “glamorous” facet of the asha–these women also train as fighters, skilled with the elemental arts; they train as shrewd politicians, ascending the ranks to ensure they can influence policy-makers; they are warriors who keep the kingdom’s boundaries safe from raiding beasts, other human greed, and monsters. The dark asha are especially important in the last, as they alone have the power to raise the carcasses of monsters from the dead and return them to earth.
I loved the rules that govern and restrain dark asha, like Tea: bone witches are exceedingly rare, and face challenges their sister witches do not. Unlike other asha, bone witches can draw runes of the dark–but only those elemental runes. Sure, Tea and her teacher can draw rudimentary runes for simple house magic, but they cannot yield earth, fire, water, or wind in battle. There are restrictions to power in Tea’s world, and in a book with a Very Special Superpowered Heroine, I truly appreciate this checks-and-balances system.
All of these praises said, I had several issues with certain elements of The Bone Witch. The worldbuilding, while promising and certainly large in terms of magic and concept, lacks discipline. Chupeco creates her own language and phrases in The Bone Witch, but there isn’t linguistic logic to these words–they, and character names, kingdom names, and certain phrases, are selected at whimsy and do not have structure. (The same could be said for the external cultures we see at the end of the book, which also seem rather arbitrary.)
I also was frustrated with the division of chapters alternating between the past main storyline, and the future storyline in which an older Tea is exiled to an island with bones and telling her story to a bard. I really, really hate it when books do that OMINOUS DARK FORESHADOWING thing and don’t follow through on those promises. For example: “You wanted to ask me about my loves and my romances? Prince Kance started out as a simple infatuation. Back then, I had no inkling how much of my life he would change. But when you are younger and know no better, an infatuation can lead all the world to burn.” Or “And that is why what I did was such a violation of Lady Shadi’s trust.” And then… nothing happens. Most frustratingly, I was disappointed that we never really saw the future storyline and the past storyline converge–more than anything else, the future storyline, with older Tea speaking with the Bard, served little purpose except for jarring the reader out of the story-proper. By the novel’s end, we see the Oracle’s prophecy and an army–but we’re missing the convergence that will make this truly powerful and meaningful.
The story is undoubtedly solid and incredibly entertaining, but it’s also rather loose and over-long, without a sense of urgency that this kind of story needs. Still, these flaws said, I thoroughly enjoyed The Bone Witch and will absolutely be back for the next installment.
Thea: 7 – Very Good
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- I also appreciate that Rin Chupeco directly challenges the traditional model in which women are the only ones suited to become asha performers through one of her male characters. ↩