Sara A. Mueller’s 2022 The Bone Orchard is a secondary world fantasy.
The emperor of Boren (henceforth Emperor) has a knack for innovation, or rather, plagiarism. In addition to conquering other nations and taking over their resources, he studies their agricultural, industrial, and political techniques. He adopts the ones that he believes will further secure his hold on power.
He is a disappointing father; his sons are for the most part cruel and deranged. Bad news for the Empire if the boys ever rule! But thanks to Rejuv, the Emperor’s life can be indefinitely extended. The troubled succession need never be an issue.
Unless, of course, someone poisons the Emperor’s Rejuv. Then the issue of who is to succeed him becomes a problem for all of Boren.
One of the Emperor’s agents, a brothel madam named Charm, is of little interest to Boren’s aristocracy. They see her as mere entertainment, a former war trophy reduced to prostitute, albeit a very successful one. They err: Charm is necromancer who can revive the dead as boneghosts. She has been kidnapped, installed in a luxurious mansion, and tasked to raise up a cadre of boneghost sex workers. They are prisoners too.
The Emperor has a special gift: he can instill unthinking obedience, a technique he uses to surround himself with trustworthy servants and to constrain the excesses of those with supernatural gifts. He now summons Charm to his deathbed, where he is dying of the poisoned Rejuv. He orders Charm to learn who of his sons is the poisoner, then kill the murderer. If Charm can survive this last assignment, then she and her boneghosts will be free.
The Emperor was a horrible man but his crimes were intended to ensure stability for Boren. His sons, each of whom is broken in his own way, are horrible men with no interest in anything other than their own obsessions. Disaster looms. There will be no pushback from the political elite, who have been terrorized into abject submission. There will be no political reform. There will be a new emperor. Even if Charm finds and kills the poisoner, each of the remaining sons is a monster. Thousands, if not millions, will suffer under the new regime.
If there is any hope for Boren, it is that Charm will clear the board of all of the Emperor’s horrid offspring, not just the one who murdered him. It is a very slender hope.
The Emperor has committed a classic error: if he intended to be an immortal autocrat, he should not have created any heirs. Heirs can be ambitious. Heirs can be impatient. If they’re monsters, they will be extra ambitious and impatient. It was really only a matter of time before one of the sons decided to off dad.
The Emperor has done a very thorough job of ensuring that there’s no opposition to his autocratic state. Any significant change appears inconceivable. Perhaps a particular emperor might be persuaded to abdicate, but the notion that there might not be an emperor at all isn’t imaginable, raised, or discussed.
I must admit that I found reading this book a chore. I don’t like autocracies, emperors, or aristocrats. This surely affected my response to the book, which was otherwise a work-person-like affair. The worldbuilding was coherent (if unpleasant), the plot was plausible given the setting and characters, and the prose was fine. There was one major problem, which was that only Charm came alive as a character. All the other characters were cardboard-ish. It didn’t help that many of them were doing terrible things, sure that they wouldn’t face any consequences. Hard to sympathize with characters like that.
I also know that I’m an outlier in many regards. My experience as reviewer, reader, and fan tells me that there will be readers who enjoy this tale of injustice and vengeance. Enough of them that it wouldn’t particularly surprise me to see the novel on award lists in a year’s time. Oh well. Whatever floats your boat.