Summary: The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.
Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.
Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she even believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland…and threaten the very survival of those she loves.
Review: I enjoyed Rin Chupeco’s first book, The Girl from the Well, and jumped at the chance to follow her into the fantasy genre. And while there were some good things about The Bone Witch (the heroine, her brother, lush descriptions, the whole idea of asha, and this specific type of magic), there were a lot of things that either weren’t or just didn’t work for me.
The heroine, Tea, is an engaging narrator, and the glimpses of her in the future, having changed radically from the girl we get to know during her asha training, is intriguing. I wanted a lot more progression on this front, but that’s where the structure of the book undercut itself. Between every chapter was a very short scene of the future, between Tea and an unnamed Bard, and these scenes either constantly killed the momentum of the past or set us up for excitement that took far too long to materialize. If the interruptions had been less frequent (and had been a more coherent narrative, not mostly Tea preparing to raise or raising creature after creature after creature), this might have worked; as it was, it became an irritating distraction, especially once it became obvious that the past Tea and the future Tea weren’t going to be any closer to each other in this book, attitude/philosophy-wise, than they were at the start of it. Having the Bard narrate the future segments felt like a deliberate choice to keep information from the reader (like who Tea’s dead love is and what her plans are for all the monsters) rather than the best choice for telling the story. I felt frustrated, not teased, throughout.
The thing that disappointed me most was the portrayal of the country Drycht. It’s obviously supposed to be the stereotypical conservative Muslim country analogue, what with a kingdom mostly of sand, a king with an “iron grip,” its women veiled, and its stance on gender roles. I cannot think of a single character in the book (aside from the Drycht envoy who is scandalized that Tea is wearing bold colors and must be calmed by being allowed to go on a rant about the shamelessness of women—and he is supposed to be “a progressive man in comparison [to his fellow countrymen]”!) who has anything good to say about the country or the people, aside from occasional praise of its trade goods.
This negative narrative isn’t subtle, either. The nameless Bard was “born in Drycht but was banished when [he] came of age for [his] freethinking ways.” While Farhi, one of the maids, has a name, she never actually speaks on the page (so far as I can remember) and always behaves negatively/distantly toward Tea. One of the heroine’s mentors says flat out “This is Kion, miladies, not Drycht. We are at an age where men and women stand together on equal footing, unlike our barbarian brothers to the south.” To top it off, there are two referenced honor killings: a dance performance “about a woman from Drycht to be executed for dishonoring her family when she fled with a disreputable lover” and a separate incident, where it is revealed that the girl the Bard loved unrequitedly was killed by her father for running away with a bricklayer. (This moment isn’t about this unnamed girl or the not-the-Bard!boy she loved at all, it is explicitly about Tea and the Bard. Because we make the tragic murder of a girl in love all about us, apparently.)
This negative portrayal is never pushed back against in the text, so it doesn’t appear to be a misguided attempt at having a prejudiced narrator. It is simply gross, disappointing, and makes me wonder what other red flags I may have missed in the mashup of other cultures in this fantasy world. I am interested in hearing from other readers and reviewers on this subject.
Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are some good ideas here, the constant interruptions from a future stranger are terribly distracting and hinder, more than help, the main narrative, and the Islamophobic content under the guise of a fantasy culture is not redeemable.