2020’s The Bone Shard Daughter is the first volume in Andrea Stewart’s projected Drowning Empire secondary-universe fantasy trilogy. It’s just published!
The Emperor protects his people from the Alanga, godlike beings who once plagued the Empire. All he asks is total obedience and a small token of his subjects’ gratitude. A trifle, really, just a small shard of skull bone, which grants the Emperor access to their life energy. He uses that to power the automatons through which he rules the Empire. Otherwise his subjects are free to pay their taxes and do as they are told until such time as they die from the side-effects of being used as a living battery.
The Emperor is growing old and it isn’t clear what will happen when he dies.
The Emperor has a designated heir, Lin. Lin’s memories only go back five years. Much of her life, including whatever erased her past, is a mystery to her. Her father the Emperor has made one thing painfully clear: she is a bitter disappointment and unready to wield imperial power. Eager to win her father’s approval, she is learning bone magic through fair means and foul.
The Emperor is a prudent man and has a backup heir, Bayan. Bayan is Lin’s superior (according to the Emperor), which does not prevent the ruler from abusing him. But the boy tolerates the abuse, knowing that if he doesn’t succeed to the throne, Lin will have him executed. After all, that is what he would do in her place.
Now for plotline B: far from Imperial Island, Jovis searches for his long-lost wife Emahla, who was kidnapped years ago. He funds his search by smuggling, using a boat he appropriated from the Ioph Carn gang. The Empire wants him dead (smuggler) and the gang wants him dead (thief).
Jovis would be well advised to keep a low profile. He doesn’t. In a moment of weakness he agrees to smuggle a young boy to safety before the Empire can collect its shard of bone from his skull. No sooner is the boy boarded than the island on which the boy lived sinks into the ocean.
Child rescue becomes a thriving business, as desperate parents ask him to save their children.
Another odd thing: Jovis discovers during a confrontation with Ioph Carn enforcers that he has developed extraordinary abilities. He can be superhumanly strong (although not superhumanly skilled at combat) and he can make the ground shake. This attracts the sort of attention a wanted criminal should avoid.
By all rights, Jovis and Lin should never meet. Fate has other ideas: Jovis’ quest to find his missing wife will send him directly to Imperial Island, with a few revolutionary side quests along the way.
I should perhaps add that Jovis has an odd pet named Mephisolou, a mysterious living artifact that is probably responsible for his powers. I couldn’t work that into the previous catalog of odd things.
There’s yet another odd thing. the islands are floating islands that migrate with the seasons. Does this mean this is an ocean world with no land masses? I wonder how the CO2 cycle works?
There is also subplot B, starring a hereditary Governor’s daughter who is radicalized by her lover. She becomes very keen on the idea of helping the helpless; she is belatedly aware of how blinkered her worldview has been. But she still expects that after she helps overthrow her father, she will succeed him and run things. So close …
This is one of those autocratic states with surprisingly few functionaries between the Emperor and his legions of obedient mooks. This sort of thing often happens in fantasy and science fiction because the author wants to keep their narrative universe simple, which leads to situations like an Empire the size of China run by a staff of perhaps a dozen people. That’s not what’s happening here: confident in his ability to create complex, capable, but obedient constructs, the Emperor fills the bureaucracy with automatons who will do just as he orders them.
You might wonder whether this works as well in practice as it does in the Emperor’s imagination. Well, no. The Emperor is essentially a programmer. His programs are good but they have loopholes that people (hackers) like Jovis can exploit. Also, life under the Emperor has become so intolerable that all the people who were too scared to resist him are more worried about what will happen to them if they do not. To quote Machiavelli:
Now, concerning the characteristics of which mention is made above, I have spoken of the more important ones, the others I wish to discuss briefly under this generality, that the prince must consider, as has been in part said before, how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible
The Emperor is both hated and contemptible. Go him.
This book may sound like a bunch of oddities stitched together by coincidence. It shouldn’t work. For me it did. I was hard pressed to put the book down before the final chapter, when it dawned on me that this is only book one of three and that complete closure was unlikely.
I can assure readers that some major questions are resolved by the end of the book and that the world at the end of the book is very different from the world at the beginning. What happens next? That will no doubt be answered some time in 2021.