Top critical review
Otherwise great book that makes use of a narrative device I despise
Reviewed in the United States on April 16, 2018
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So it’s become a thing where if a book I got a review copy of has been out for so long that it goes on sale for cheap, I buy it. Might be a print copy of the book in a bookstore, might be a Kindle book. It’s my apology for being such a failure of a reviewer, especially if the book is by and about marginalized people. The Bone Witch was one such case. The book left me underwhelmed, but I don’t regret buying it or reading it one little bit. I just wanted more from it.
The worldbuilding and plot are the novel’s strongest points by far. Following Tea from the time her powers as a dead-raising bone witch awaken at her brother’s funeral to when she becomes a full-fledged asha, Chupeco’s fantasy world unfolds naturally as Tea herself learns about the surprisingly superficial asha system while a maid and then apprentice in House Valerian, one of many asha collectives in The Willows, a district of the city of Ankyo. More powerful asha will fight, sure, but a surprising amount of an asha’s time is spent as an entertainer at nobles’ parties as an entertainer. Upon becoming an asha, they have to pay their House back all the money that was spent on them.
It sounds like a criticism of the novel, but the shallow superficiality of the system was actually one of the most interesting points of the worldbuilding. It’s such an obvious flaw that there’s simply no way it won’t come back up later. Since an older Tea is in exile and ready to raise some hell, perhaps she came to the same realizations. She’s fourteen when she’s an apprentice and seventeen as an exile, leaving a gap of three years where something drastically changed Tea.
Most of the novel focuses on Tea’s time as a fourteen-year-old asha apprentice, the process of becoming an asha, and the very slowly unfolding mystery of who is causing chaos within the city. Though all of it is interesting as Tea’s world unfolds itself before our eyes, the actual pacing of The Bone Witch is glacial. Most of the novel’s forward momentum comes not from the above-listed events but from interlude-esque sections in which an older, exiled Tea is telling her story to an unnamed bard. She slowly reveals her plans for war to him and (not unsurprisingly) freaks him out.
Though I don’t know the proper name for it, this literary device is so irritating. Another example: when you read the action-packed prologue to a 400-page book only for the novel to meander along uninterestingly until that action finally kicks in around page 390. It’s a teasing attempt to up the pacing of any slow-moving novel and it rarely works. Here, it’s just annoying. It’s clear something happened to change Tea after the end of her apprenticeship, but the novel doesn’t feature that event. We only get mentions of that big something and implications about it.
That massive gap between who she was in the past and who she was now, leaving readers with questions about what in the world happened, is simply too much for me. A guessing game is not what I wanted from this book. Though its sequel The Heart Forger is out now, I don’t have much interest in picking it up since its jacket copy implies it’s picking up and sticking with where the older Tea’s story left off. It’s worth reading for the brilliance of the worldbuilding, but The Bone Witch is ultimately a mixed bag.