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Written by Ashley Spruill
First of all, Happy New Year all! I’m excited to begin my 2017 with another book review. Now, I follow a lot of book-related blogs, websites, and social channels. So as 2016 was wrapping up, I was seeing a lot of lists about the most anticipated books coming out this year. And I was thrilled to get my hands on one.
The Bone Witch is the first installment in a new YA series by author Rin Chupeco (I wasn’t familiar with her work before this, but some of you readers may be) slated to come out March 2017. It’s about Tea Pahlavi who discovers she is a bone witch (almost like a necromancer) when she accidentally raises her brother from the dead. She is taken in by an older bone witch to begin her training to learn how to use her magic in the face of danger and dark forces.
Sounds familiar, right?
While the summary fits a dauntingly long list of titles with that same premise, I was still excited to be able to read a novel by a POC with a kind of magic I haven’t read a lot about in other series. And by the book’s end, I had a lot of mixed feelings. So let’s just dive into the nitty gritty.
To start, I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with the setting. With the author having been raised in the Philippines, I had the distinct impression throughout the novel that it was the source of some inspiration. Much like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, the story is not set in our world at all, but in one where magic is the norm. You cannot help but get pulled into her attention to detail because, from the clothing to the buildings, everything is clearly of some significance.
However, at least for me as a reader, the importance is hard to follow. In LOTR or GOT, there are often details that will feel familiar because of the medieval time’s feel of it all. There is no such familiarity in The Bone Witch. And when I assumed I could Google search some of the items — like a hua, an article of clothing worn by a lot of the female characters and described often — I came up short. While I often pride myself on having an active imagination, it was still hard to not to have anything to base Chupeco’s details on, which could be frustrating at times. I truly do have to applaud Chupeco on her efforts — whether the details are inspired by a culture not my own or from her imagination, she has indeed created and built something unique for this story. I may just suggest taking notes the first time reading. There are details that I wrongly assumed I could remember or weren’t of importance that come up later (and often).
The characters themselves were much more familiar. Tea, the protagonist, enters the story at a mere twelve-years-old, and we learn that much of the story is her narrating flashbacks. The present Tea is seventeen, exiled, and — for reasons that, OF COURSE, aren’t given to us in this book — raising an army of dangerous creatures referred to as “daeva” which felt almost like demons of another culture (which is probably simplifying it too much). To me, there wasn’t anything particularly special about Tea except that it quickly becomes apparent that she’s “the chosen one,” but she doesn’t bring anything new or exciting to the trope.
And the biggest shame about Tea as a character is that she is so much more interesting when we see her in the present day. She’s angry, exiled on a beach filled with bones of dead daeva that she’s raising to attack a nearby city, and more importantly, convinced she’s doing the right thing to save people from an even worse enemy. We only get this Tea in 2-3 pages between chapters, usually to preface what’s to come in a flashback or to explain what we just read. But it was just so much more interesting to read. That’s probably the biggest frustration — the story that should be told isn’t. And by the time the book ends, the past still hasn’t caught up to the present, which means there will likely be more of this in the second book.
But, Tea aside, we are introduced to an assortment of interesting and somewhat more colorful characters. Although none are as colorful as Mistress Parmina, the woman who ultimately oversees Tea’s training. She’s motivated solely by money and pride, so she can be mean and demanding until someone becomes of value to her. She’s not likable, but she stands out against the rotating backdrop of characters who either easily get along with Tea or are nothing more than the classic mean girls with a petty grudge. However, the more interesting story is knowing that these characters, even Tea’s brother that she resurrects, somehow come to scorn her eventually.
The messiest part of the story for me was, ultimately, the plot. Sometimes, if stories don’t have strong characters, they have a strong plot (or vice versa). This was not the case with The Bone Witch. Much of the story is focused on Tea’s training, a drawn out montage of back-breaking chores and, eventually, training to become what is known as an asha. Asha are young women with varying degrees of magical abilities in wielding either the elements or the dead (like our young Tea). However, they are trained to go into a myriad of positions — from bodyguards, court entertainers, and, to some extent, politicians. So they are trained in skills from singing and dancing to fighting, history, and magic.
And that’s what the majority of the book is about.
There are moments of plot development but, we spend so much time on Tea’s training that, by the time we get to the end and realize there was a traitor out to kill her, I was left scratching my head trying to figure out if I was oblivious to the clues, or if the author just picked someone at random. The entire ending was jarring and left me feeling disappointed because I was expecting for the past and present to meet. So there wasn’t any build-up. There was some last-minute action and a romantic interest plot twist that’s pretty easy to guess.
Ultimately, The Bone Witch is beautifully written regarding setting, but lacking in the development of characters or plot. One can only hope that this will change in the next installment. The potential is there; I just hope it’s reached. I want to know how our character becomes so hated, ostracized, and raising a demon army, and it’s the main thing that will likely keep me reading this series.
That is the story I would have rather read.
If you wind up reading The Bone Witch when it comes out in March, let me know your thoughts. Did you love it? Hate it? Feel indifferent? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.
Ashley Spruill is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and has spent her post-graduate career working in Public Relations at a small agency in Raleigh, N.C. When she’s not reading with movie scores playing in the background, she’s most certainly binge-watching something (and tweeting about it). Either way, she’s invested in the well-being of fictional characters and her dog.
Connect with her on Twitter: @amspruill
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Just finished this book tonight and I’m in total agreement with your review. I would add that I kept picturing Memoirs of a Geisha when reading this. There were soooo many similarities.