Book/Author and Year Published: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (2017)
Age/Genre: YA Fantasy
Preferred Reading Environment: This will be a great winter read, curled up in a warm blanket.
Reading Accoutrements: Hot herbal tea of your preference
Content Notes: Death
My friend, Beth, recently told me about this awesome, culturally diverse YA fantasy she was reading. I was looking for a book to fill out my October schedule, and since the book is titled The Bone Witch, I knew I’d found the one. I immediately put it on hold at my library.
The Bone Witch follows Tea, a young girl who discovers she’s a dark asha (or bone witch, as they are not-so-nicely called by some) when she accidentally raises her brother, Fox, from the dead. Asha are women who can wield magic, most of which is elemental. When a girl is identified as having magical potential, she is brought up in an asha-ka (think boarding houses) as an apprentice and trained in history, magic, fighting, and entertaining. Their job options are fairly vast, but there are certain behavioral expectations that come with being an asha. Tea is taken in by Mykaela, the only other living dark asha, and taught how to use her skills.
The book has two narrators. The first is an unnamed bard who stumbles across 17-year-old Tea and asks to hear her life story so it can be shared with the world. The second narrator is Tea herself, talking to the bard. The main chapters are Tea’s story, and between each chapter are short exchanges between Tea and the bard. For the first half of the book, I was convinced that this frame could not be maintained throughout multiple books and was happy that I hadn’t gotten myself into a series. But as the world expanded, it became clear that this story would not be finished when the pages ran out. Sure enough, there are two more books in the series (I have not confirmed yet if it is a trilogy or if more are coming). I can see a couple of different ways the frame could be changed or expanded, and I’m excited to see what happens next in this world!
The bulk of the story shows Tea learning what it is to be an asha and how to navigate the new world she inhabits. She is joined by her brother, Fox, who has become her familiar since she brought him back to life. Tea goes through grueling training and a couple of dangerous experiences because of her powers. The magnitude of Tea’s powers impress and worry the asha elders, who want to keep her close in order to prevent her from accidentally destroying a city with raised corpses. She quickly learns when she must bow to experience and when she can use her influence to challenge traditions, for example when Tea’s new friend wants to be an asha but isn’t allowed, Tea does everything she can to open that path for them.
In a lot of ways, The Bone Witch falls into the coming-of-age category, though I don’t think the sequels will adhere as closely to that label. There are some hints of the ever-popular YA love triangle, but the main love interest plots haven’t fully developed at this point in the story. At the end of the book, there are two bait-and-switches where the characters and story-so-far imply one character’s involvement and then it’s quickly revealed, “Ah-ha! But it was NOT who you were expecting!” Both of these reveals are pretty predictable which was pretty disappointing because the concept of this series is so intriguing.
The world of The Bone Witch is completely fantasy, but the cultures are recognizable as inspired by African, Asian, and European countries in our world. Ankyo, the city where Tea undergoes training, is a hub of politics and trade. Tea interacts with politicians and nobles from many of the 8 kingdoms, and we learn the political alliances and histories relevant to the plot as Tea does. Much of the food mentioned is mediterranean in origin. Clothing and cultural behaviors are borrowed from many different traditions, as well. The only big cultural thing that didn’t seem to have a specific origin was the politics. We’re presented with a pretty generic kingdom/royalty structure that keeps the cultural references from becoming political.
My primary complaint about the book is that the frame provided quite a bit of foreshadowing that wasn’t fulfilled by the end. I know it’s because this is the first in the series, and I’m sure that Chupeco will wrap up all the loose ends, but the end certainly qualifies as a cliffhanger. I’ve already got the sequel on hold at my library, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!
What’s the last Fantasy world that sucked you in?