The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco
Confession: It took me about twenty percent of the novel to figure out what this book was about. That’s not a bad thing–it was an exciting challenge. A mysterious bard (name still unknown by the end of the novel) travels to the end of the world where they discover a young woman that wears fancy clothes and kills demons with a word. This is Tea, the infamous Bone Witch, who’s a dark asha in exile. For what? We don’t know. Tea then tells her story to the bard.
The Bone Witch is Memoirs of a Geisha meets The Kingkiller Chronicles. Tea manages to be about half as annoying as Kvothe, so that makes the story much more readable, although her mousiness often makes her fade into the background too much as a person. She’s a little thin as a character, and this isn’t a great thing, considering over half of the story is told from her POV. This disconnect with Tea’s personality hampered my ability to get into the story, but that’s partly because I had trouble connecting ‘current’ Tea (exiled and in the boneyard) with ‘past’ Tea (training as an asha). While I think this tone dissonance might be intentional, it hampered my early enjoyment of the story. Current Tea holds a mystery, but was a character that I couldn’t quite grasp. Past Tea is open but a bit boring, a bit bland. This gets better when Tea trains to be an asha, but the early parts of this story were bumpy.
But there are so many other things about this story the surmount Tea’s slightly lackluster personality. Tea discovers her powers when she raises her brother, Fox, from the grave. Fox could’ve felt flat and like a plot-prop, but he was a wonderfully subtle character. He’s reserved but occasionally funny, and there’s something subtle in how Chupeco writes him that never quite lets you forget that he’s struggling with his new, undead life. The other characters all feel real and fully fleshed out, too. Lady Mykeala is Tea’s mentor, and she’s dying and weakened without her heart.
When Tea reaches the Willows, a specific city center dedicated to training asha, the story comes into its own. Asha are witches (kind of) but also geisha (kind of) and elevated court advisors (kind of). The roll of the asha and what they do in and for the societies of this story is complex. Some of the asha are body guards, some marry nobles, and others perform (for lack of a better term) witchcraft. The asha have to be stunningly beautiful yet be capable fighters, dancers, and learned women (yes, only women–but with a twist). How the asha train, who trains them, and all the details thereof are the most interesting elements of this story. It’s fantastic worldbuilding, and the magic is upfront yet subtle.
Current Tea explains and uses much of the magic she’d been taught, which works to show that she’s mastered it. Tea also raises deava from the boneyard, which provides a clue as to how the story will end. The deava are at once terrifying and yet adorable. I’m kind of a sucker for scary-yet-cute, so this depiction of the deava worked remarkably for me. It also shows the contrast between how Tea used to view the deava with fear and how she ‘now’ sees the deava as pets.
During her training, Tea meets the future king, Kance, and his cousin, Kalen. Tea has clearly captivated the attention of the royal house, and while that plot doesn’t play out by the end of this book, it’s developed tantalizingly for future story.
Oh twist ending, how I hated you. It was clear the book might end on a cliff-hanger, which I dreaded. We were teased as to who was in the grave that Tea danced over, and we did find out, but screw you, Rin, for that teaser ending!
Rating: 4 stars. Loved some of the more subtle character work, and I’m desperately interested in the world that was created. Also, that freaking ending. I need to know how the freak that relationship develops!