Title: The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1)
Author: Rin Chupeco
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date: 7th March 2017
The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco, the first of a new YA fantasy series, has been likened to The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. Usually I take these things with a pinch of salt and decry “advertising!” instead of walking into the book expecting to be given just this. But in this case, the echo of style and verve truly is there—and that’s one of the things that made me love this book so very, very much. There’s a kind of slow, soft poetry to a story told through the eyes of a single character as they recall the (however distant or recent) past; as if we’re being told a story within a story. We’re told the story by Tea as she recounts it herself and we not only learn about her in snatches and glimpses, but that’s the way we’re invited to see the world of The Bone Witch as well, which is immensely rich and satisfying, as well as tantalisingly slow. The way in which Tea tells her story allows you to curl up and savour every word, simultaneously eager to spend time in the past through her recollection and race back to present day in order to follow the unravelling story wherever it is headed.
Tea is a bone witch, which she discovers when raising her dead brother from the grave, ultimately making him her familiar; in this way he is something resembling alive, though he remains very, truly dead. When a bone witch creates a familiar, the once-more-living creature retains their personality and memories and becomes linked to the witch who raised them. Which is why, when Tea is found by Lady Mikaela, a bone witch on her travels, raising and slaying the monstrous daeva as a bone witch is tasked to do, her brother is forced to remain with her. Neither sibling seems to mind this new and strange turn of events, however, and although Tea is apprehensive about leaving her sisters and family to become an asha-in-training, she is pleased enough to have raised her brother and be headed away from her tiny, insignificant village.
But it won’t be smooth sailing. Perhaps if Tea was any other kind of witch, then perhaps. Only Tea is a Dark asha, a bone witch who can only draw the Dark runes; runes for raising the dead and other darker, murkier things. And the raising and slaying of daeva. Only bone witches can kill the terrible creatures who rise up and bring death wherever they tread and though Tea has just arrived in the city with her new teacher, she already knows that this will be her fate.
As Tea struggles to manage her powers and undergo all the necessary training to become a fully-fledged asha, she finds that being the new girl is hard—let alone when you’re a bone witch. For all the bone witches are essential, they are treated with suspicion and often open hatred by many people and on the whole, they are merely tolerated as a presence among other asha. Not all of the asha think this way about their bone witch sisters, but Tea finds that for the most part she will make no easy friends among the other asha and asha apprentices.
Tea soon discovers that she is very capable, surpassing the expectations of her tutors in many areas. But life remains difficult under the strict rule of the asha-ka’s matron and there are times that Tea wishes she’d never left her little village. But she’ll never take back having raised Fox.
As Tea continues her story, we begin to see the tension mounting and are given the tiniest glimpses that might reveal what her plans will come to be. Through her eyes we see her past and through the observant narrative of the bard who sought her out, we’re told the story of Tea now, where she hides in exile from the rest of the asha as her plan begins to unfold. Much like Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, we are constantly held within inches of learning more about Tea, both in the present day and in her past, and the result is a compelling, lyrical story that lures you in and keeps your interest through its delectably slow unfolding and merging of past and present, with the smallest hint of what the future might hold.
The Bone Witch takes places in a diversely populated world where the asha take centre stage. In subsequent books I would be thrilled to see the male would-be-asha be afforded a place among the asha, instead of the ranks of the Heartseekers, where boys who can draw the runes usually go. I would love to see a boy join the ranks of the asha in the exact same way that Tea did: with the pretty clothes and enchanted jewellery, instead of keeping the genders separate with soldiers and witches, or by further feminising him in order to make him fit. I want Kai to be a male asha still partaking in all the traditional things that the asha do, without needing to surrender his gender somehow to do so. For me, that would mess with the gender boundaries of what is ‘masculine’ and what is ‘feminine’ in a way that feels relevant to me and more powerful given the typically feminine education and training of the asha apprentices. Basically Kai can be asha, regardless of his gender, doing all the things a girl would. That’s what I want. It’s what I’m hoping for. In addition, since there seemed to be (what I perceived as, at least) the implication of at least an attraction, if not romance, between two of the asha, I’m happy that at least some manner of queer representation was included, though I will be hoping for more in future.
I absolutely loved The Bone Witch, finding it completely enchanting and compelling: the slow, careful pace of the book is what makes it shine, with every detail lovingly rendered on the page, weaving a tapestry which becomes the backdrop to Tea’s journey. This trilogy is going to be fantastic, I have no doubt.