Hello everyone, and welcome back!
This book has been on my list to pick up for a while, but the hardcover was proving difficult to get my hands on for a decent price and the reviews of this were so mixed that I waited for the paperback, so here’s my lukewarm take for you.
I don’t always want to commit to something that’s not-so-loved in the blogosphere—after all, I tend to be more critical than most, so why gamble the time, you know?—but the premise of this book (necromancy! zombie brother!) was pretty dang intriguing, and there are some times my taste just wildly varies. So here we are to talk about The Bone Witch.
The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco
First off: this cover is worth appreciating.
The Bone Witch is essentially about, as you might guess, a bone witch. (This might have been part of its appeal to me, since I liked Truthwitch. Give me weirder magic and lay it on me upfront, I guess?)
Tea raises her brother from the dead by accident and finds herself stolen away from her home to train among the asha, the geisha-like witches of this universe, where women are trained to entertain and battle and politic at once. Only unlike those more common witches who control the elements, Tea is a rare Dark asha, the kind tasked with dealing with the horrible beasts who come to plague the land—and, despite this, hated by many for their fearful powers.
I can boil down my feelings on my book pretty quickly, and for once, they’re not about its length! The beauty of this novel is its worldbuilding. The annoying thing about this novel is that it is almost solely worldbuilding.
Okay, to explain further: this book keeps you moving through it by framing the story as a told narrative. A collector of stories has come, bidden by a dream, to a beach littered with bones, where the Bone Witch tells him how it all began, how she came to be here in exile doing unspeakable magic. That does a good job of pushing the narrative forward, because what she is doing and about to do have a sense of foreboding and dire consequence about them, and it does beg the question of how she got to that point. And, come on. It’s just a very cool set-up.
But the thing is, the book never quite catches up to all that. This is basically entirely a set-up novel for the action to come. It establishes the origin stories of Tea’s powers, how she came to train, and so on. It establishes in often elaborate detail the way that asha train, the way they dress, their role in society, and so on. We get some background in the politics and different locales of the world. We get a fair amount of information about how the magic system works (actual magical powers and also why everyone is wearing their heart made of glass on the outside—it’s a thing).
I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tea gets to do some magic in this book, and we get to know a few characters. But these moments of action are brief, and we are mostly told, not shown, how Tea feels about her family and friends. This book falls pretty short on giving us interactions between Tea and the people she has relationships with, which is harsh because they seem like relationships and characters with a lot of potential. All of them seem to have something going on below surface level, even if it’s continually frustrating that we just get told about it and we don’t get to see Tea’s interactions with them and how they feel about each other on page. And Tea is someone I want to root for, even though I’d like to know her a bit better by the end of that many pages from her perspective.
But…despite the slow plot and relatively small amount of time spent on character stuff, I liked the book? I mean, it’s basically 400 pages of set-up, but the world is interesting and feels complex and thought through. I would ideally enjoy seeing these characters interact (for the love of pie please just let these people have some more conversations and moments, the few we get are good but so far between), and as overloaded as this book is on description, the descriptions did feel pretty immersive. (Yes, this book spends ages on asha garments, but I’ve read fantasy before. It is prone to spending ages on whatever the author’s pet thing is to describe.)
(I’m maybe biased in still enjoying this book because there were aspects of this that reminded me of the early half of Kushiel’s Dart, only it never really gets to the part where the other foot drops and all those plot set-ups go off.)
And if all of this seems comparable to Shadow and Bone so far, then yeah, you’re not wrong? I’d say that here, the training aspects feel more thorough, the world and magic systems more complex and immersive, but Tea’s main relationships feel less developed than Alina’s. (Although it was only ever to me Alina’s romances that felt fairly developed, while her friendships and rivalries felt a little shallow. I have my fingers crossed for Tea’s non-romantic relationships, since they feel like they have a lot of potential; I’m pretty meh on her love interests.) That book is also more clearly plot-focused, driving Alina to a “destiny” and, ultimately (from my perspective), a series of predictable events with diminishing returns (and drawn out romantic angst) thereafter, whereas…this book is admittedly messy in terms of why the heck all of this was important and where it’s going, but on the bright side, it feels less predictable?
Basically, that book at a glance is an easier, better-paced read than this one with more action and romance payoff, but this book seems like it could have a higher ceiling in terms of creating a trilogy that steadily improves on what’s basically an unadorned, sometimes dull strong foundation rather than decaying after the strength of its premise. (Keyword seems. I’ve been burned before.)
Aaand all of that said, I’ll rate this how I’ll rate this now—I’m kind of torn on whether it deserves what I’m giving it, but time and the next book will tell if this really worked out. (And if not, hey. At least it had some cool ideas.)
So…are there any books most people disliked that you actually enjoy? (I’m not usually the one in this position, hypercritical as I am, but I suspect I will be among not a majority of YA blogs preordering book two of this series.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!