The Bone Witch, by Rin Chupeco [The Bone Witch #1]

Title: The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1)
Author: Rin Chupeco
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Publication date:  7th March 2017
Rating ★★★★★

30095464The 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.

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Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott [Court of Fives #1]

Title: Court of Fives (Court of Fives #1)
Author: Kate Elliott
Publisher: Little, Brown (YA)
Publication date: 18th August 2015
Rating: ★★★.5

18068907Court of Fives is my first book by Kate Elliott. My relationship with this book began very positively—the setting, the diversity, the concept of a rather simple plot at the heart of it all, wrapped up in layers of life and politics that invariably complicated an otherwise bare-bones idea. But by the end, I was left a little, inexplicably, wanting. Only, I’m not sure for what.

Jessamy wants to run the Fives; an athletic contest of varying activities and definitely some danger. But in the life she was born to, it would not be proper for her to do so. The accident of her birth conspires with her father’s (selfish) career aspirations to create a very suffocating atmosphere in which Jessamy is little more than a complication. She isn’t especially pretty, like one of her sisters, so cannot hope for a marriage to further the family’s (or her own) status; she isn’t especially bookish so has no desire to pursue a career as an Archivist or similar, unlike her very slightly disabled (she has a clubbed foot—which is seen as something other fathers might have killed or abandoned their children for, rather than admit their existence); and nor does she have a volatile temper and a blatant disregard of care for keeping up any kind of charade of being happy with the life she has, and therefore isn’t left to her own devices or indulged. Jessamy suffers from being too mild-mannered, too ordinary. Even so, she refuses to give up the idea of the Fives. She trains and practises in secret and must often beg and bribe her sisters in order to help her. This often causes tension, since ultimately the girls are nothing alike one another: they either lean into the restrictions and perceived nobility of their lives like cats into the sun, or rebel completely.

Nevertheless, Jessamy will not give up the Fives—and why should she? Even with the threat of being caught, she simply cannot stay away. And again—why should she? In the end, her family will be grateful for Jessamy’s disobedience and her disregard for being the perfect daughter for her father, because she will probably save their lives. When something unthinkable happens and the lives of Jessamy and her sisters are turned upside down, transformed forever and put in mortal danger by the machinations of a power-hungry man, it is only Jessamy who can help them. And she will do whatever it takes.

Court of Fives is such a complicated book—but then present me with a dysfunctional family and selfish parents, and I will have a field day. I use “complicated” in a good, positive way here. I like complicated families: I like real representations of parents who, even in spite of claiming (and also probably meaning it) to love their children, often see them as property. I like it because it happens and people need to see this. What made this uncomfortable dynamic between Jessamy and her family better, is that Jessamy doesn’t always see it—and when she might, her own feelings get in the way of how she reacts, logically and emotionally.

There were times I threw up my hands in utter disgust at the behaviour of Jessamy’s parents and the attitudes of those around the girls—but then this is how you’re supposed to react to blatant racism and injustice and sexism. So A+, Elliott, for pissing me off about all the right things.

Even so, I didn’t love this book. But I did like this book, and I do want to read the next.

I wanted to connect with this book so much more than I did, and I’m trying to put my finger on what I didn’t quite connect with. There’s diversity, different representations of cultures and religions, there’s racism and tension and the suggestion of characters veering towards same-sex relationships (a minor character—and dear, sweet gods, just give me fantasy that isn’t especially “queer”, but that is just normal and happens to have LGBT characters who are 100% part of the main cast and not just side characters—but at least in an unexpected place and with a potentially different story to tell). I should have lovedlovedloved this book. But instead, I liked it.

I connected with the characters, I appreciated the diversity, the tension, the plot in its entirety as well as in its separate threads—I loved every single concept woven through this book. And yet… I couldn’t connect enough to give it more than an enthusiastic (slightly baffled—at myself, not the book) three stars.

People will like this book; people will love Jessamy. At its heart, Court of Fives is a book about being able to do what you want to do—what makes you happy. A fig to imposed responsibility given through a constructed social role, through the expectations of others. Do what you need to do to be the person you want to be. That’s pretty huge, especially when delivered through something so innocuous as basically being an athlete. Jessamy runs the Fives for the sheer joy of it. That is quite possibly one of the most important messages in the book—and to find it in young adult, where young people are so often guilted this way and that for the sheer audacity of wanting to do things that make them happy, this is immensely pleasing for me.

Ultimately, Court of Fives is a great book and has so much chewy, gooey, goodness to really sink your teeth into. I’m not sure which elements of the story didn’t quite work for me and it does rather feel like grading an essay or exam a C+ or a B-, yet without quite knowing why. Elliott presents a vast and varied world that is easy to get lost in and feels far wider, far richer than we’ve been allowed to see just yet—and part of this is why I’m eager to read the next.