In The Bone Witch, Rin Chupeco crafts a world beyond what we’ve come to expect from high-fantasy YA. Taking inspiration from the Middle East and Asia, the Ayyubid dynasty and Zoroastrianism, Chupeco steers us away from a Euro-centric landscape toward a setting that’s more diverse. The scope of her world is massive, and the detail of it is thrilling and refreshing, yet the story Chupeco begins here ultimately underwhelms.
Tea Pahlavi is thirteen when she accidentally raises her brother from the dead. She’s whisked away from her provincial town to begin her training as a bone witch. Bone witches, or dark asha, are part of a highly powerful tradition of geisha-like spellbinders who serve as diplomatic and military forces in The Eight Kingdoms. Dark asha are the only ones capable of controlling the demon-like daeva who plague the kingdoms, but they’re growing increasingly rare. Tea is skeptical that she can be a promising bone witch among more-respected asha, but she is talented and quickly finds her place in this new world.
The Bone Witch brims with potential, but Tea too often adopts the tropes of familiar YA heroines. Tea explains that bone-witch magic is “death magic, complicated and exclusive and implacable, and from the start, I wielded it with ease.” As an asha, Tea is expected to be both a warrior and an elegant entertainer. Of course, she excels in nearly every way with minimal struggle. As a bone witch, she’s regarded poorly by asha and non-asha alike, yet she courts the affections of a crown prince. These character traits are occasionally effective but verge on cliché.
It’s also unclear what Tea actually wants. For a girl who wears her heart–literally–around her neck, she is almost impossible to read. Everyone in this world is given a heartsglass, an empty locket around their neck that is imbued with a color reflecting their spirit—and magical aptitude—when they come of age. Tea is naturally gifted at reading and understanding other people’s emotions and illnesses through the fluctuations of color in their heartglass.
Following an argument with one of her peers, Tea observes that “For the rest of the evening, Kalen said nothing, though his silver heartsglass pulsed red,” a physical representation of his anger. Yet earlier, when Tea is angry at Kalen for suggesting she wants to curse him, she responds “‘I don’t want to curse you.’ This was only half the truth, because I was angry and did wish I knew how to shut him up.” Tea states her emotions, yet rarely appears to feel them the way she sees emotions being felt by other characters.
Despite being given multiple opportunities to explore Tea’s fascinating world, we’re not invited into her thoughts. Her motivations are vague and shifting: She resents being a bone witch but strives to become the most powerful asha, and those competing desires are difficult to track. It’s as if we’re being deliberately kept at a distance from a heroine I wanted so desperately to understand and connect to.
Chupeco heightens the mystery of the novel by intertwining a second narrative: a story involving an unnamed bard who witnesses seventeen-year-old Tea living on a desolate beach and raising an army of daeva she was supposed to be killing. This secondary plot unfolds in brief but regular sections, hinting that at some point Tea will be exiled. This knowledge makes clear that her life will soon fall apart, making it difficult to invest in her younger years and the relationships she develops.
Chupeco ramps up the tension quickly in the bard’s narrative, leading us toward the moment Tea mounts her invasion. Yet, the primary narrative of Tea training as an asha progresses slowly, relying on the tension of older Tea’s mission to carry the story forward. What I expected to be the climax of the book—Tea’s banishment—is still yet to come. It’s therefore unclear which story line is meant to hold the most of my attention.
It’s unclear how the rest of the series will balance these two story lines. A strong series can be carried over multiple books while still crafting satisfying arcs in each installment. The end of The Bone Witch reads as more of a pause than an end, and though it leaves book one a bit underwhelming, I look forward to reading what comes next.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION – FANTASY
The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco
Published March 7, 2017
Rin Chupeco is the author of The Suffering and The Girl in the Well. The Bone Witch is the first installment of her new young adult series.