[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my knowledge) a spoiler-free review.]
Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch is the story of a young girl named Tea who discovers she is significantly different from the other witches in her family and then trains to come to terms with Dark magic. In the world of the Eight Kingdoms, there are dark forces at work from which only Tea and other bone witches like her — of which only one other is left — can protect the world.
The Bone Witch is a perfect book for fans of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, and Tamora Pierce’s The Immortals series. It follows Tea’s training as an asha, a position particularly reminiscent of the Japanese cultural phenomenon of the geisha but based in magical and runic power. Tea’s responsibility as a Dark asha — or bone witch —, however, allows her to commune, raise, and compel the dead and also requires her to face and defeat monsters called daeva that ravage and terrorize the kingdoms. This seems to be the first book in a series.
The plot of The Bone Witch is told from two alternating points of view throughout the whole book. The first is told from a third person point of view by a bard seeking to hear the story of Tea’s growth as a Dark asha and her banishment from the Eight Kingdoms. This serves as a frame story that allows us to hear Tea’s tale as well as witness her dark and foreboding future. The second is told from a first person point of view: It is Tea’s narration of her epic story to the bard previously mentioned. We see her as an apprentice and initiate asha, growing into her powers, her understanding of the Dark, and herself. We know, then, thanks to the Bard’s point of view, that Tea will be very powerful, simultaneously revered and feared by others, at the same time we witness her struggle to mature into womanhood and her runic powers. It is an interesting narrative tool to build suspense as well as gesture to what is to come in Tea’s life.
In the world of asha, these women, powerful in the art of runes, serve as social, political, and magical military paradigms of the Eight Kingdoms. They are, generally, a step above simple witches. It is a role that only women can fulfill, though Tea is certainly prepared to rub her nose in that tradition for a friend. Like geisha, they most often serve as companions to men — generals, princes, political allies and representatives, and the like — but their influence and power is just as significant as said men. They must perfect the arts of dancing and singing as much as they must learn the arts of fighting and runes. Most asha have control of the elemental runes — fire, earth, water, air — but Tea is different; she can only tap into the Dark runes, which limits her at the same time it makes her the world’s greatest asset in defeating daeva.
The two greatest strengths of Chupeco’s The Bone Witch are the characterization of Tea herself as well as the plot’s world building techniques. First, Tea is rambunctious, talented, and ambitious. She is a fast learner and almost a natural at much of the magic required of her as a Dark asha. Tea’s narrative voice seems mature and aware and extremely circumspect for her age (she is eleven when her story begins, and fifteen by the end of this book). She also pays especial attention to detail and other people’s personalities and current states of mind. Tea has the promise to hold her own among heroines like those in Tamora Pierce or Ursula K. Le Guin’s many epic fantasy series. However, much of her character is told to us, rather than shown, which made it a little difficult for me to connect with her, though this is largely due to the fact that she is telling the story retrospectively herself.
As for Chupeco’s world building, she accomplishes this by pairing broad brushstrokes of information with examples of cultural specificity. We learn much about the world of the Eight Kingdoms based on mythology — the origin of asha and daeva, the gods’ downfalls — and political intrigue, but many of the specific characters from neighboring kingdoms serve to introduce us to their kingdoms via their costumes, linguistics, and social ideals. Other phenomena, such as the growing and consumption of runeberries, lend a particularity to the world and especially the culture of the asha.
Though The Bone Witch promises to be a somewhat feminist text due to the important role given to women in this world, it falls short of expectations. For example, Tea’s significant relationships throughout the plot are contradictory to this. Among the asha-ka, or the homes of the asha, a setting predominated by women, Tea makes many female acquaintances and bonds. Many of these, however, are relationships of necessity: the woman who discovers her Dark powers, the woman who runs her asha-ka, the women chosen to serve as her asha “sisters,” or mentors. While she does develop close bonds with these women, it is male characters with whom she chooses to fraternize: her brother (now her familiar, as she raised him from the dead), the prince, the prince’s body guard, and Linkh, a shop boy versed in magic as well. Similarly, the women, especially from other asha-ka, often act as enemies and work against each other to prove who is more powerful. Rather than form strong female relationships, they squabble amongst themselves and vie for their male guests’ attention, effectively nullifying any potential for feminist rhetoric throughout the story.
Ultimately, Chupeco’s The Bone Witch is a fascinating story of discovering and growing into one’s magical power and self-empowerment. We witness its main character Tea as she discovers her runic power and again as she has fulfilled her true, Dark potential. Though the reveals and plot twists at the end of the book are quite sudden and underprepared, it gestures to sequels and leaves us with the questions: What is good? What is evil? And where lies the line between them? And how do we choose where to land?
Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch will be published March 1, 2017 by Sourcebooks, Inc.