THE BONE SHARD WAR by Andrea Stewart (BUDDY READ BOOK REVIEW)
And so Nils and Beth arrive at the final book in the Drowning Empire trilogy, The Bone Shard War.
This is a trilogy we began reading together for Wyrd and Wonder and it’s been an epic journey!
WARNING – The following review is in a book-club style and is full of spoilers
The Bone Shard War is the epic finale to the unmissable, action-packed and magic-laced Drowning Empire series.
Lin Sukai has won her first victory as Emperor, but the future of the Phoenix Empire hangs in the balance – and Lin is dangerously short of allies.
As her own governors plot treason, the Shardless Few renew hostilities. Worse still, Lin discovers her old nemesis Nisong has joined forces with the rogue Alanga, Ragan. Both seek her death.
Yet hopes lies in history. Legend tells of seven mythic swords, forged in centuries past. If Lin can find them before her enemies, she may yet be able to turn the tide.
If she fails, the Sukai dynasty – and the entire empire – will fall.
The Bone Shard War is available now from Bookshop.org
Having followed the trilogy together, what were our feelings starting this, the last book?
Nils: I’m not gonna lie, I was looking forward to it but also rather nervous! People had told me I was going to cry by the end of the book, and granted I cry really easily at books I’m invested in, but I really didn’t want Andrea to hurt my beloved characters. Were you the same Beth?
Beth: I just always take it as a given now that books are going to make me cry. I go into them expecting that, especially if the author has already made me cry in a previous book!
I’ve been so impatient for this book, to return to this world – but I found that when I was actually faced with it, I was nervous too! I didn’t want to get to the end of this trilogy and have to leave!
Nils: I didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters either!
The story begins two years on from where we last left off – how did you feel about this?
Nils: I had to read back over my notes of The Bone Shard Emperor to remind myself where we left the story, however the two year time jump didn’t feel jarring.
Beth: I also found your notes very helpful!!
Nils: Ah I’m glad!
I never felt the characters and their journeys had moved on too far for me to lose track of things in those two years. Lin was still uncovering knowledge of the Alanga and trying to save the Empire, Phalue was training Lin as she had promised in the previous book, Ranami was still dealing with The Shardless Few and my poor Jovis was still a prisoner.
Beth: I was a little surprised by the jump though, I wasn’t expecting it, but I can see why Stewart did it.
Nils: I think the two year jump was a clever decision by Stewart as realistically after the battle at Gaelung they’d need a respite before once again trying to bring down Nisong, Ragan and Dione.
Beth: Obviously after a massive battle like that there were bound to be big changes to go through, so like I said, it made sense that Stewart would skip the boring administrative years where people are licking their wounds, and return to the point they’re prepared to stir up trouble again.
Were there any particularly big surprises for you at the beginning?
Beth: I was a little surprised Phalue actually stayed to train Lin, and for a full two years! I was surprised she was able to stay away from Ranami and Ayesh that long.
Nils: I hadn’t thought of that but come to think of it I’m surprised she managed a full two years too!
The biggest surprise for me though was the way in which Lin had hardened herself. She had become a slightly darker character, one who thought more in a practical and ruthless way.
Beth: Oh that’s such a good point Nils, there was definitely a progression here for Lin, wasn’t there!
Nils: Definitely, but I guess it was a natural and inevitable progression given the weight of the Empire on her shoulders? Yet I couldn’t help but miss the Lin we were presented with in the first book, the one who wanted to help everyone without manipulating them in the way her father did.
Beth: I absolutely agree with you here. I didn’t dislike this version of Lin, but I missed the Lin that had the (relative) freedom to have dreams and ideals at the start. Book Three Lin was a much more sobering representation of the cost of power and leadership.
Nils: Absolutely, it was sad to see how much it cost Lin.
The Ossalen surprised me too! After their growth in The Bone Shard Emperor I hadn’t expected them to get even bigger!
Beth: I found this a little sad! Like it would upset me to have a creature I was close to who could fit curled up on my shoulder, but then grew to the point they couldn’t fit in the same room as me anymore!
Nils: It was definitely sad too.
Beth: I think perhaps the biggest surprise for me at the start was Jovis’ storyline, how he had been wrenched away from Lin and how his love for Mephi was being used against him. It really feels like Stewart is meaner to Jovis than anyone else, she puts him through so much!
Did you think Lin was right to abandon everything and chase after the swords?
Nils: At first I think her motivation to retrieve the swords was reasonable, after all those swords held unknown powers and they seemed vital to understanding more about the Alanga of old. It wasn’t right to leave them in the hands of the Empire’s enemies. The swords could’ve held an advantage Lin so desperately needed.
Beth: I found this one a difficult prospect to balance in my mind. I kept feeling like she was being irresponsible, chasing after things and trying to best Dion like she was competing against Bayan for keys again. The difference this time being that islands were falling under siege, she had an Empire to run.
Nils: As the novel progressed I think Lin should have recognised that the swords were a lost cause. Every pursuit of them ended with her losing them again and gaining very little.
Beth: Which was so frustrating to read!
Nils: God, yes! I feel her focus should have shifted to building her army and going full force at her enemies, which still could have helped to retrieve the swords. I also felt it was unfair to manipulate Phalue into joining her quest by withholding help when she knew Nephilanu was under attack. Yet that was the Empress Lin was becoming. Having her first person narration gave us insight into Lin’s doubts and insecurities, so we do know she was always questioning if she was doing the right thing.
Beth: This is why I love first-person narration so much. But yes, you’re right, it was a good insight into the kind of person she was, the fact that despite how much she said she would be a different Emperor to her father, she just ended up following a very similar path to him, running after Alanga secrets and blind to all else. I wanted to shake her.
Nils: I think her main problem was when you’re an Empress there is no right thing and every mistake you make has catastrophic consequences.
Beth: That’s true Nils, a sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. She did have both Dione and Ragan to compete with, she had to at least try to prevent them getting an advantage.
What was the biggest twist for you?
Nils: Ooh this has to be the twists on the worldbuilding because I loved those so much. So whitstone is made from Ossalen bones and Ossalens when fully grown become islands! How cool was that, Beth?
Beth: It was very cool, and we absolutely loved this, didn’t we!
There’s a beautiful notion there, of having bonded on such a deep level with what becomes your home.
It’s like a really strong allegory for that sense of home that some people feel for the place they live – it’s so much more than just an island. But as I said earlier, I was already feeling sad that Thrana was too big to fit through doors anymore, so I did have a little cry at this prospect.
Nils: Oh definitely, as cool as it was, I did feel sad too. I expected the Ossalen to remain animal companions forever. However, I do love the way Stewart connected everything to nature and that they would, in a way, still live on forever.
Beth: There were some great twists in this book to be fair! I loved Nisong’s story, I didn’t see her ever having the strength to step away from Ragan!
Nils: And Nisong bonding with Ragan’s Ossalen, Lozhi! I was so glad Stewart added that twist. Lozhi needed a kinder human companion and Nisong needed someone to show affection and kindness back. They really made the perfect pair.
What did you make of that bittersweet ending?
Nils: Jovis 😭😭😭😭 Stewart how could you, you monster!!! The moment Jovis didn’t recognise Mephi or Lin, that was it, I was in tears. The two companions he loved most in the world were complete strangers to him and it broke my heart.
Beth: I came so close to putting the book down Nils, I almost couldn’t take that. I could feel Mephi’s pain radiating off the page, after everything they’d been through and done for each other and how close they were… I really couldn’t cope with that.
Nils: In a way it was good that Jovis had forgotten his traumatic years as a prisoner committing atrocities against the empire, but he’d begun to heal from that and accept his past. I loved that in the very last chapter he was able to have a fresh start with Lin and that he re-bonded with Mephi, I cried happy tears at that.
Beth: I hadn’t really considered that, I guess that is a kindness… but then those years are a part of him, good or bad, so he’s still lost an important part of himself, and I find that notion quite scary? I’m with you though, I was crying so much by the end, that he’d come back to Lin again, like he’ll always keep coming back to her.
What did you find was unexpected this time around?
Nils: I was most surprised by Nisong as she was a character who I had previously hated, believing her to be evil, yet in this finale I grew to really sympathise and even become fond of her.
Beth: Nisong was definitely the surprise for me too!
Nils: Nisong is complex, messy, full of anger, regret, confusion and not really knowing her place in this world. I loved seeing her growing love for Lozhi and how she showed her tender side with him.
I felt her ending was very fitting, not quite forgiven but working towards making amends.
Beth: I really disliked her too. I’d felt so sorry for her in the first book, but I really didn’t like the paths she chose. So when she finally decided to let Nisong go, when she stopped to evaluate why she was trying to be Nisong and what that actually meant and that she didn’t need to be that person, I was so happy for her. It was a toxic relationship, and she was unwittingly repeating it with Ragan, so I was so glad she came to recognise it for what it was and had the strength and bravery to break that cycle. I think it’s a really important and relevant message.
Nils: I’m glad she fully embraced Sand too.
In contrast to Nisong, we have Ragan who grew up as a Cloudtree Monk along with their harsh discipline. The strict regime and beatings never subdued him, it only made him more bitter, more cruel. Like the ancient Alanga Dione and the Ioph Carn leader Kaphra, Ragan too wanted power, but for completely different reasons. I was surprised to see Ragan as the biggest threat by the end—he was a character who just wanted to watch the world burn.
Beth: I guess I was expecting to learn more about the Cloudtree Monks? I was surprised, and maybe a little disappointed, we didn’t spend more time there. This is always my problem with books I love, I’m always disappointed there was more!
Something else I hadn’t expected was Ranami’s storyline! My favourite characters throughout the trilogy have always been Jovis and Lin, I connected with their first person narratives much better than the third-person narratives of Ranami and Phalue, they’re always an after-thought for me sorry. But I did love the way Ranami found her feet and began to lead people. If you want something doing, you have to do it yourself, and it was nice to see her grasp that!
Nils: I was the same, Lin and Jovis were both my favourite characters too. I always found Ranami a little too harsh, too judgemental and not great at seeing another’s point of view, which often made me annoyed at her. Yet in this book I loved seeing her tender side with Ayesh, and becoming the leader of The Shardless Few I think also made her realise how complicated and hard being a leader is. The world is not as black and white as she once believed.
Beth: Ooh yes that’s such a good point actually, she always expected so much didn’t she!
What kind of themes did you particularly enjoy?
Nils: I loved Stewart’s exploration of redemption. As I’ve mentioned above Nisong begins to redeem herself by the end, as does Jovis even if his actions were not his fault. Lin is constantly trying to redeem her father’s cruelty on the Empire, as does Phalue but more so to prove to Ranami that she does want to build a better system of rulership, one where the poor are protected. Stewart shows us that redemption can be sought even if the world you live in makes it hard to do so. Trying to be better is better than never trying at all.
Beth: Ah Nils that’s a fantastic point and you’ve put it so well!
For me, I loved the way history was constantly repeating itself, I loved Stewart’s exploration of the ways in which people and societies can fall back into the same ruts and mistakes. Are we doomed to go round in circles always, or is there a way to break from that. I love “secret histories” as a trope, there’s always a lesson there; are you protecting people by hiding the truth of things, or ultimately are you just going to make things worse?
Nils: Excellent point Beth, and I loved that Stewart left a lot of history still left uncovered and that became Lin’s mission, to uncover as much knowledge as she could and share it with the people of the islands. We left with a world that could learn from the past and not destroy itself with secrets.
What were the strengths of the story? And which were your favourite parts?
Nils: Stewart’s Bone Shard and Alanga magic system has always been superb and the way it develops in this novel was mind blowing. Some of my favourite scenes were when Lin or Jovis were at sea or on an island and used their Alanga powers to defend against Ragan’s immense powers. The visual of waves crashing against each other, of sea serpents and of water being shaped into a weapon just felt so cinematic. I loved that.
Beth: I agree Nils, I think Stewart’s worldbuilding is the strength of the whole trilogy to be honest, I feel it’s the defining element – when I think of this trilogy, I think of the Ossalen and islands and bone shard magic. I sometimes struggle to visualise big epic magic battles, but I didn’t here. The battle on the sea, when Lin was trying to divert the waves away from their ship, my heart was in my throat the whole time!
Nils: Mine too. Stewart’s depiction of the battle was breathtaking.
I do feel the friendships and bonds made in this novel was a major strength too. Phalue and Ranami share such a special connection, especially with their adopted daughter Ayesh. It was nice to see Lin create a small friendship with Phalue, and open herself entirely to Jovis. Even Jovis finds a friend amongst the Ioph Carn, although theirs is an amusing love-hate relationship throughout! Of course there are the Ossalens, Thrana and Mephi, who prove to be the ultimate best friends to Lin and Jovis. Through all the upheaval, betrayal, revelations and challenges our characters face these bonds are what grounds them and motivates them to carry on. I loved that.
Beth: Not to mention our own bond reading this together ♥️ This trilogy will always hold a special place in my heart just for that!
Nils: Absolutely for me too 🥰 just like with Chakraborty’s Daevabad trilogy, we had a blast reading this together.
So to wrap up, what were your final thoughts?
Beth: What an unforgettable story! I loved sharing this adventure with you Nils, I’m so glad I got to share with you!
I think, in all honesty, the first book of this trilogy will always be my favourite; Lin sneaking furtively through the palace, desperately trying to find out the truth; Jovis rescuing Mephi and the each new discovery about him. But I loved where Stewart ultimately took this story and the avenues she explored on the way. It’s a story with so much heart in its core, wrapped up in a world with a magic system that is so utterly unique.
This is the kind of story that stays with you.
I hope Stewart will one day return to this world; I’d love a prequel, I’d love to know the Ossalen that the islands become! How cool would that be Nils?
Nils: Good shout there! An eventual prequel would be amazing. I’d love to meet some of the Alanga of old, Dione before he lost faith in humans, the first tithing festival, and of course the Ossalen.
Similar to you Beth, the first book is also my favourite. The Bone Shard Daughter engrossed me with palace secrets, the search for keys, the discovery of constructs and how they are made, the bringing down of tyrant leaders. It’s where Beth and I fell in with the Ossalen, where we theorised over Alanga artefacts (so many WhatsApp messages!) and where we discovered just how macabre bone shard magic could be. It’s also where I fell in love with the characters who started out with such big and honourable ideals. Yet where Stewart takes them in the next two books is incredible too, the entire Empire changes by the end and the scope of this arc awed me.
These characters go on such a journey and watching that unfold in each book was both heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Stewart has definitely made her way into one of my favourite authors, she takes the fantasy genre and layers it with fresh and exciting concepts, and so I very much look forward to reading her next series. Are you ready to read it with me Beth?
Beth: I can’t wait to! She’s definitely going on my auto-buy list, I’m looking forward to discovering where she takes us next!