- Blog Tour: Two sisters and the sea between them… Crossing Impossible Expanses in The Ones We’re Meant to Find
Genre: Sci-Fi, Dystopian, Thriller, Young Adult Fiction
Trigger/content warnings (from Goodreads): terminal illness, suicide, violence (including choking), death, death of parent (off page), vomiting, large scale natural disasters and mass casualties, some gore
Today’s the day! The release date of and my blog tour stop for one (1) mind-blowing book: described as We Were Liars meets Black Mirror, with a dash of Studio Ghibli, The Ones We’re Meant to Find promises to be full of twists and engaging surprises, and it delivers. This is the first pure sci-fi book I’ve read in a while (I’ve been on a fantasy streak), and it reminded me why I love sci-fi so much. It hits all the points perfectly – it imaginatively explores futuristic technology and human interactions with unfamiliar circumstances, it’s grounded by connections to the modern world, and it’s ultimately, at its heart, about the people. This is without a doubt one of my best reads ever.
Read on for my spoiler-free review!
Some secrets are best left at sea.
Cee awoke on an abandoned island three years ago. With no idea of how she was marooned, she only has a rickety house, an old android, and a single memory: she has a sister, and Cee needs to find her.
STEM prodigy Kasey wants escape from the science and home she once trusted. The eco-city—Earth’s last unpolluted place—is meant to be sanctuary for those commited to planetary protection, but it’s populated by people willing to do anything for refuge, even lie. Now, she’ll have to decide if she’s ready to use science to help humanity, even though it failed the people who mattered most.
An emotional and atmospheric sci-fi page-turner that is both chilling and heartwarming, The Ones We’re Meant to Find follows two separated sisters trying to find their way back to one another across an impossible expanse, and through their story, expertly peels away the layers of the climate change problem. It discusses in depth the underlying complex intergenerational ethics that converges with the temporal domino-effect of climate disasters, as well as the moral corruption that arises under such pressure, to result in a tragedy of the commons of the global scale. Yet despite the bleak settings, there is so much love. This book will make you feel so much at once, and stay with you long, long after you’ve turned the last page.
The Nerdist described TOWMTF as a “gorgeous puzzle box book,” and I couldn’t agree more. The first half of the book is confusing to say the least, but incredibly compelling. I kept thinking, “what even is happening,” and before I knew it, I was past the halfway mark and sucked into Kay and Cee’s worlds. Joan He builds the world gradually with confident strokes, scattering clues with careful design as the world sharpens in the reader’s mind.
The tone is melancholic yet whimsical and even eerie at times. Cee and Kay’s POV’s are foils, not only because of the sisters’ distinct characters, but also because of the settings they are situated in and their storylines. Joan He uses that contrast to the max potential – especially for seamless chapter transitions. The last few chapters had my heart racing and literally gave me goosebumps. Jumping between Cee’s and Kay’s perspectives feels like sinking into and surfacing out of a dream, until that dream is fractured upon the reveal of the “twist,” and the scattered puzzle pieces begin to lock into place with thrilling satisfaction.
Just a few pages in, we are presented with an enigmatic situation: Cee is stranded on an island, and she is fueled singularly by her desire to find her sister Kay again, yet her plans are shattered time and time again by the brutal waves of the ocean. Kay, on the other hand, is back in the bustling skydome eco-city where people sacrifice mobility and privacy for a sustainable lifestyle, still in mourning over the loss of her sister and unable to accept Cee’s death.
Cee is upbeat and fun-loving and determined against all odds. I really liked her humor – despite having no companions, Cee fills the air by chatting and sarcastically joking an old android, U-Me, and inanimate objects. Of course, that and the ever-present air of mystery. Kay is stoic and reserved – she’s calculating and constantly self-reflects, thinking on a grander scale than most, and thus less of a typically likeable character than Cee, but compelling nonetheless with her readiness to do anything to achieve the necessary means to save those she loves. I loved Kay immediately (I relate a lot to Kay’s affinity for science and her social awkwardness) and quickly became attached to Cee as well.
A striking aspect of the story is its portrayal of the ocean (and other natural forces) – as deeply mysterious, stunning, and powerful as it is, the ocean plays a huge role in the story, both literally and metaphorically. As Cee and Kay represent two perspectives of the same narrative, unsurprisingly they have different ideas about the ocean. While Cee “loved the whitecaps that foamed like milk, the waltz of sunlight atop the peaks,” Kay thought the sea to be “a trillion strands of hair, infinitely tangled on the surface and infinitely dense beneath.” The inherent terrifying quality of the ocean and the unknown below its surface majorly contributes to the overarching eerie and mystifying atmosphere of the book.
Aside from the mystery element, The Ones We’re Meant to Find is spectacular in its exploration of family and the ones we’re meant to find (title moment!) and love. Consequently, there are a lot of emotional stakes, and you can bet I cried my eyes out while reading. Multiple times. All the main characters are well fleshed out and have distinct voices, and it makes their interactions so much more satisfying. These determined girls and broken boys will be tugging on your heart strings from page one.
I love how The Ones We’re Meant to Find unflinchingly explores how we come to terms with our limits in controlling nature, intergenerational trauma and liability, and privilege in a time of global calamity. Joan He touches upon most aspects that make up the peculiar ethics surrounding climate change, and deftly interweaves these discussions in intimate bonds and emotional confrontations.
Now, I leave you with a song playlist and more of my favorite quotes because the writing is simply gorgeous :’)
TL;DR This book is absolutely brilliant. It drops you smack dab in the middle of a terrifying future, and forces you to confront our human nature, the good and the bad. It’ll make you fall in love, and break your heart. It’s fierce, chilling, and hopeful all at once. 9/10 on the sob scale.
I’m enthralled by the breathtaking writing style and handling of strong themes – Joan He is definitely an auto-buy author for me now!
Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favorite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Pennsylvania and currently writes from a desk overlooking the Delaware River.
Website | Twitter | Instagram
More from Joan:
Thank you to Joan, Macmillan and Netgalley for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review! Disclaimer: all quotes used in this review are from an advanced copy; readers should refer to the final version for quotation.
Many thanks to Paola for organizing this book tour! I’m so honored to be a part of Hesina’s Imperial Court street team. Check out the launch post and other tour stops below.
- Tragic Love, Obsession, and the Immigrant Experience in White Ivy
I don’t often read contemporary coming-of-age stories, but the premise of this book captured me, and wow. This was a ride. I was intrigued by the first page, and suddenly I was halfway into the book. White Ivy is an incredibly compelling read, with lyrical, poignant prose and a suspenseful plot with many twists and turns. It’s literary fiction with components of a psychological thriller – a dark, engaging character study that sucks you into Ivy’s world and doesn’t let you go until the last page. If you love a good corruption arc, this book is definitely for you.
Ivy Lin is a thief and a liar — but you’d never know it by looking at her.
Raised outside of Boston, Ivy’s immigrant grandmother relies on Ivy’s mild appearance for cover as she teaches her granddaughter how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen — and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, and her dream instantly evaporates.
Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when Ivy bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable — it feels like fate.
Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners, and weekend getaways to the cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.
White Ivy is a Gatsby-esque story, with in my opinion a much more compelling character arc and addictive storyline. It is at its core a critique of the American dream, and explores the classism and tokenism hidden behind that illusion of accessibility. In White Ivy, the pursuit of privilege turns into a dark and dangerous obsession.
The epitome of an outsider of the white American elite, Ivy Lin is Asian, a woman, and from a lower-class family. Asian immigrants, whose struggles and anxieties are often shadowed by the model minority stereotype, are incredibly vulnerable to the deceit and empty promises of the American dream. Struggling with adversity against her racial identity and pressure to conform to the whiteness of her surroundings, Ivy internalizes that systemic hatred and spirals down a path of corruption. Ivy is by no means a good person, she makes awful decisions, and she feels real. She’s like someone I might have known through word of mouth (albeit infamously) from an aunt or cousin.
Susie Yang builds the complexity of Ivy’s character with a clear intent. By the first line, Ivy has already been introduced as a thief. And from there, Yang expertly develops Ivy’s layers scene by scene, page by page, all the while tightening the empathetic connection between the reader and Ivy, and setting up Ivy to bring about her own downfall.
From a young age, Ivy is accustomed to neglect – her parents left her in China to set up their life in Massachusetts, and one of her earliest memories with her family was that of loneliness. By the time her grandmother joined them, she had little memory of the caring parental figure, who then taught Ivy to steal. Burdened by a strangled relationship with her parents, her grandmother’s crooked ideal ingrained into her, and her own frustrations at fitting in with her wealthy, white peers, Ivy grows to become secretive, materialistic and manipulative.
The romance is secondary to the themes of class and privilege, but Yang does a superb job of exploring Ivy’s internal conflicts regarding identity through her struggle with her emotions in interactions with love interests.
In middle school, Ivy falls hopelessly in love with blond-hair, blue-eyed Gideon, who comes from an old money family, and is everything Ivy is obsessed with and wishes to be – good-looking, rich, and white. Years later as an adult, Ivy runs into Gideon’s sister and thus reconnects with Gideon, and resumes her scheme to claw up the social ladder. Buuuuut, there’s a love triangle! Her plans were disrupted by a ghost from her past, a boy from Massachusetts who loved her, and loves her now, for who she is instead of who she is pretending to be. That’s doomed love from the beginning – Roux may have acquired significant wealth now, but Ivy sees herself when she looks at Roux, and a life that she desperately wants to separate herself from. The plot progression is a slow-burn, but nonetheless addictive, and builds up to a shocking and thrilling breaking point.
A Tangent: A Very Specific Immigrant Experience
Let me go on a bit of a tangent here, haha – as much as it was entertaining to follow along Ivy, sometimes, it was unnerving to read, as it hit a little too close to home regarding my own experiences as a member of the Chinese diaspora. Especially during Ivy’s trip to China, I saw a crystal-clear reflection of my own experiences. I was surprised at that – I can’t recall reading any non-Chinese-published books that touch upon the phenomenon of extended family division due to post-Mao rural-to-urban migration. Many Chinese young adults today have a crossover of family members from both urban and rural areas, and from vastly different economic classes. There’s the concept of 老家 (laojia, hometown or more accurately, ancestral home), often a poor village, even for city dwellers who never grew up in (or have little memory of) so-called 老家. That complicates even further for children like Ivy, who left China too early to form her own idea of her roots, and then when visiting years later, are presented with two vastly different lifestyles – so different from each other, and so different from the life in the States. Both lives in China feel like a dream, and it’s difficult to reconcile the three worlds, and how Ivy reacted to the stark difference reminded me of myself. Long story short, younger me hadn’t learned to appreciate a lot of things that I do now, and reliving those memories as I read about Ivy’s similar experience made me cringe at my past self. Every time I think about it, I marvel at how well Yang put that particular piece of immigrant culture and experience into writing.
It’ll be spoilers from here on out, so skip to the Final Thoughts!!
!!! SPOILERS AHEAD !!!
Tragic Love and Tragic Endings
Every major character suffers in their pursuit of the American dream. I mean, the most tragic has got to be Roux. Despite his efforts to rise up the social ranks, like Ivy, he is looked down upon by the old money elite, the Speyer family. And Ivy, too – because she mindlessly chases after that ideal. In the end, he was so blinded by his love and belief that he could achieve all he wanted that he gave his life for it.
With Roux’s death, Ivy believes that she has finally become who she’s always wanted to be – a part of the American elite. Ivy has strived her entire life to live as a white person, and with the upbringing that taught her to deal only in absolutes, she seized her chance to finally achieve it, however terrible the trade-off.
And assuming Gideon really married Ivy to hide his love for Tom, it emphasizes the fact that even if you’re born into a life of money and power, if you do not fit all the criteria of a straight, white, rich man, you cannot be yourself in such a lifestyle. But maybe, in Ivy’s narrative, the truth doesn’t matter. In the end, what matters is her realization that she was manipulated by the Speyers for their gain just like how she manipulated them. And she probably didn’t have to kill the one person who loved her without pretense, and who she can feel vulnerable around. Roux’s death was the death of any chance Ivy had at true happiness. From one perspective, Ivy has a bittersweet ending, but to me, the ending is comical and tragic. By reaching for an unattainable dream, she assures only the destruction of herself.
White Ivy unflinchingly tackles the deception that is the American dream, and the horrors that one faces trying to achieve a dream not meant for them. Yang brings to the page various complex discussions, such as internalized racism, racial stereotypes, and class struggle, and nods to others, such as depression within Asian immigrant families, and deftly maneuvers them in a narrative that centers only one character. There are many more important and interesting discourses in White Ivy, and overall it’s an amazing read in every sense – the character progression, the plot, the tension, the romance… mua *chef’s kiss* A definite 5/5 stars!! You’ve found your next read if you’re looking for one!
Get your copy of White Ivy from Simon & Schuster. Happy reading!
Susie Yang was born in China and came to the United States as a child. After receiving her doctorate of pharmacy from Rutgers, she launched a tech startup in San Francisco that has taught 20,000 people how to code. She has studied creative writing at Tin House and Sackett Street. She has lived across the United States, Europe, and Asia, and now resides in the UK. White Ivy is her first novel.
- Most Anticipated Releases of 2021
2020 was… rough, and no one knows what exactly 2021 has in store for us, but we DO know that 2021 promises a myriad of exciting book releases. One glance at that lineup, and whew… 2021 is going to be a GOOD reading year. There are more and more diverse and new voices being published, and works that promise to push genre boundaries and perceptions.
Here I present you 16 of my personal favorites that I’m shaking in excitement for. I’ve omitted including the synopses to keep it more concise, but if you click on the book titles it’ll lead you to their Goodreads pages! Now, get ready for some dazzling worlds you can immerse yourself in and epic, heart-wrenching stories!
(Some of the later releases haven’t had a cover release or a substitute cover made yet – I hope you’ll appreciate the fake covers I made haha.)
The list is in order of publication date.
March 23rd, 2021
Two women clash in a world full of rebellion, espionage, and military might on the far outreaches of a crumbling desert empire.
An epic military and political fantasy featuring a sapphic romance between a cranky soldier and a cranky princess. Ever since reading The Poppy War, I’ve been incredibly drawn to military fantasies (Note: assassinations! Sword fights! Adrenaline!). The world is North Africa-inspired and queernorm (I love seeing more and more books set in queernorm worlds – The Bone Shard Daughter is another one).
One of my favorite authors, Andrea Stewart, blurbed it! So naturally I took notice, then fell in love with the premise. Supposedly, it “grabs you by the collar, breaks your heart over its knee, and mends it.” And y’know what? I want that. Terribly.
Preorder your copy from Orbit.
May 4th, 2021
An engaging sci-fi story full of twists, about two sisters and the sea between them.
From what I’ve been hearing about this book, it has determined girls and broken boys, class wars and environmental issues. The ocean, as deeply mysterious, stunning, and powerful as it is, plays a huge role in the story. It’s pitched as We Were Liars x Black Mirror, and promises excellent world-building, exploration of climate change problems, dark and surprising twists, and a good satisfying cry.
Preorder your copy from Macmillan.
May 11th, 2021
P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut with “cinematic action, a radical reimagining of real history, and magic on every page.”
Steampunk. Cairo. I’m already sold! When I looked more into it, I learned that it also has supernatural murder, a strong female cast, old gods, djinn, secret brotherhoods… need I say more?
Although this is Clark’s debut novel, he has novellas/short stories set in the same world. I have not read them, but I’ve heard overwhelming positive feedback from peers who have read A Dead Djinn in Cairo.
Preorder your copy from Tor.
May 11th, 2021
An epic tale of violent conquest, buried histories, and forbidden magic set in a pre-colonial West Africa-inspired world.
The protagonist, a disillusioned scholar, meets a skin-changing warrior who comes from a place that shouldn’t exist, wielding magic that shouldn’t exist. I’m detecting… intrigue and conspiracies. I eat up lore-heavy world-building and magic systems like candy, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into this one.
I was absolutely captivated when I came across this cover by chance. I knew nothing of the book then, but I knew I wanted to read about whoever it was on the cover. I read the prologue, and the gritty vibes of the world are just irresistible.
Preorder your copy from Orbit.
June 1st, 2021
Nghi Vo reinvents an American classic, The Great Gatsby, as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess.
The Great Gatsby entered the public domain this year, and this is the absolute best possible thing to come out of that. In this retelling, Jordan Baker is queer and Asian-American. When I read the synopsis, I thought, Of course! Gatsby’s story and world just work so well through such lens. As R. F. Kuang, one of my favorite authors, wrote in her blurb: it is “Gatsby the way it should have been written―dark, dazzling, fantastical.” On top of it all, there’s magic.
I recently read Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, and she has gorgeous, hypnotizing prose. I cannot wait to dive back into her writing. And look how dreamy that cover is!
Preorder your copy from Tor.
June 1st, 2021
An incendiary and utterly compelling thriller with a shocking twist that delves deep into the heart of institutionalized racism.
This is one of two dark academia books featured in this list. I’m so glad Ace of Spades and How We Fall Apart are here to bring diverse voices to a genre overwhelmingly dominated by white and male characters. Pitched as Get Out meets Gossip Girl but Black and queer, this book promises to be a wild ride from start to finish.
Love reading about the downfall of messy rich people? This book not only guarantees that, but brings it to the next level.
Preorder your copy from Macmillan.
June 8th, 2021
A dark, unforgettable debut inspired by Hungarian history and Jewish mythology that challenges the popular view of fairytales.
This book is both the tale of a girl abandoned by the gods trying to find her sense of belonging in the world, and a tale about violent nation-building. It’s rich with magic, folklore and political turmoil, complete with a slow-blossoming love story. The narrative is told through gorgeous writing and unflinchingly tackles religious persecution, cultural genocide, and ethnic cleansing.
Personally, I heard “magic system based on body horror” (it’s gonna get pretty gory) and “enemies-to-lovers” and was SOLD.
Preorder your copy from Harper Voyager.
June 8th, 2021
A long-imprisoned princess and a maidservant in possession of forbidden magic come together to rewrite the fate of an empire.
Forbidden love and forbidden magic! A thrilling revenge plot! Sapphic anti-heroines! World-building and a magic system inspired by the history and epics of India! I can tell already that this dazzling start to a series will capture my heart and never let it go.
Preorder your copy from Orbit.
June 29th, 2021
We went past praying to deities and started to build them instead…
Giant mecha-deities, overthrowing tyrannical rule, cyberpunk sapphic enemies-to-lovers, and found family. On top of that, there’s Korean rep, and a chaotic crew of dumb but big-hearted kids. Can you ask for more?
It’s going to be action-packed with lots of cannon fire and sword fighting, but according to Zoe, “it’s the ‘found family’ trope above everything else.” June couldn’t feel farther away.
Preorder your copy from Macmillan.
July 6th, 2021
A princess in exile, a shapeshifting dragon, six enchanted cranes, and an unspeakable curse…
Wow… just… that cover. This is a fresh take on the classic fairytale “The Wild Swans” that draws inspiration from East Asian folklore. “The Wild Swans” is one of the few fairytales I remember reading in my childhood, and only because it made me cry buckets. The inability to speak, the loneliness, and the ending that was like a warm hug… I can’t wait to see how Elizabeth spins this beautiful fairytale into something even more brilliant. Add forbidden magic and hints to angsty romance, and my excitement is through the roof!
Preorder your copy from Knopf Books.
July 20th, 2021
A bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty. (THIS IS IN MY TOP 3 OF MOST ANTICIPATED!!)
Full of bloodshed, ancient Chinese history and culture, political scheming, and discussions of gender and identity – this sweeping, fantastical retelling of the brutal history of Zhu Yuanzhang’s rise to power will be nothing like anything you’ve ever read.
Aside from the thought-provoking narrative and stunning writing, this book promises to be BRIMMING with yearning. Quoted from Alix E. Harrow’s tweet, there’s a scene where “the prince orders his finest general to kneel and the general replies, his voice low, ‘would you like me to?'” Don’t tell me your heart isn’t trembling after that.
Preorder your copy from Tor.
August 8th, 2021
Study hard. Betray harder. A group of students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their darkest secrets when an ex-best friend turns up dead.
Listen, an Asian-American dark academia story… it just makes sense. Think of the mental health toll of the “model minority” myth – it’s tightly connected to the toxic, cutthroat academic culture within Asian-American communities. Imagine the micro-aggressions from non-Asian peers, and especially fetishization from predominantly white peers at elite prep schools. When academic success is often tied to your identity, how can you not do everything to stay on top?
Having grown up in a Chinese-American household with parents who valued academic performance over mental health, this is a book that I didn’t know I needed, but now desperately need with every fiber of my body. I’m so glad Katie has written this into existence.
Preorder your copy from Bloomsbury.
September 21st, 2021
The third and final installment of The Green Bone Saga, essentially “The Godfather with magic and kung fu.” (ALSO IN MY TOP 3 ANTICIPATED!!)
… I can’t say much about this because I haven’t yet read Jade War (The Green Bone Saga #2) and I’ll likely spoil myself. Just know that from hints Fonda Lee has dropped on Twitter, shit’s really going to go down.
From Fonda’s interview with Civilian Reader, “Jade Legacy is going to take place over a longer period of time and gives the conflicts introduced in the earlier books intergenerational aspects and repercussions.” I’m in love with the messy and dramatic gangster family that the Kauls are, and I’m both thrilled and terrified for the last book.
Preorders not yet available.
September 28th, 2021
Pacific Rim meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this retelling of the rise of Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history.
Ancient China but make it sci-fi! Giant magical mecha that transform (like in Transformers) to resemble mythical creatures! Toppling the patriarchy! A love triangle but it’s healthy and polyamorous! Tell me that’s not one of the most unique and interesting premises you’ve ever heard.
Iron Widow combines two worlds that couldn’t be farther apart – ancient China and a futuristic tech world, complete with invasion from sentient, evolving machines – and produces a breathtaking narrative that challenges the norms. I am geeking out and I needed this in my hands yesterday.
Preorder your copy from Penguin Random House.
October 12th, 2021
Epic in scope but intimate in characterization, Jade Fire Gold is a cinematic tale of family, revenge, and forgiveness inspired by East Asian mythology and folk tales.
There is a girl who can steal souls, and a boy prince exiled from his land bent on taking back the throne. June describes the dynamic as “What if Katara were the Dark Avatar and Zuko was hunting her down?” (ATLA fans where you at?) There is witty banter, family angst, political intrigue, dark magic, and even cults!
Drawing inspiration from wuxia and xianxia literature and challenges rising from the clash of cultures experienced by members of the Asian diaspora, Jade Fire Gold is a story of identity and redemption that I absolutely cannot wait to read.
Preorder your copy from HarperTeen.
November 11th, 2021
The unmissable sequel to The Bone Shard Daughter, a captivating tale of magic, revolution and mystery. (IN MY TOP 3 ANTICIPATED!!)
This is the latest release on this list, and anticipation for this book will single-handedly get me through to the end of 2021. If you’ve been following me for even a little while, you probably know how much I adore The Bone Shard Daughter, and since finishing it, I’ve been at the edge of my seat waiting for this sequel to drop. (Read my review here.)
The first book revolved around identity and the deconstruction of empire, whereas the sequel seeks to explore, in Andrea’s words, “what you do once you know who you are… living up to the role you’ve carve out for yourself, and… the difficult task of moving on from the past.” This is everything I needed and more.
Preorders not yet available.
And that’s the end! Watch out for these amazing books hitting the shelves this year and add them to your TBR so we can scream about them together! Until next time – happy reading!
- Magic and Empire in The Bone Shard Daughter
The Bone Shard Daughter is one of my top reads this year, and believe it when I tell you – it’s going to make big waves in the SFF scene. You know that satisfying feeling when you finish a book that just hits all the right spots? The Bone Shard Daughter did that for me. It’s the start to a series that promises to be astonishingly epic, with unique and grand world-building, several lovable characters with intertwining paths that come together in a stunning tale of revolution, and one of the most creative magic systems I’ve come across.
The emperor’s reign has lasted for decades, his mastery of bone shard magic powering the animal-like constructs that maintain law and order. But now his rule is failing, and revolution is sweeping across the Empire’s many islands.
Lin is the emperor’s daughter and spends her days trapped in a palace of locked doors and dark secrets. When her father refuses to recognise her as heir to the throne, she vows to prove her worth by mastering the forbidden art of bone shard magic.
Yet such power carries a great cost, and when the revolution reaches the gates of the palace, Lin must decide how far she is willing to go to claim her birthright – and save her people.
The setting of The Bone Shard Daughter is incredibly unique – a mass of migrating islands ruled by a single empire – and shrouded in mystery. The world is revealed to the reader through five perspectives, a large number for a single novel, but each perspective is explored with so much care that it never feels messy.
The characters are so SO lovable. Only in The Bone Shard Daughter have I seen cold, gothic, eerie vibes meld together with sunny, pirate-y, adventure vibes in one book so perfectly. Lin Sukai is the daughter of the Phoenix Emperor, and resides in a nearly lifeless palace, where except for herself, her father and brother, Bayan, the entire place is run by servant constructs. Due to a mysterious illness, she retains little memories of her past, and is kept from the family secrets of Bone Shard Magic. Her narrative is always blanketed by uncertainty and grimness in her quest to prove her worth, and becomes more disturbing as she unveils secrets of the empire and Shard Magic.
Jovis’s narrative, on the other hand, is full of life. He traverses amongst the islands, chasing after his missing wife and surviving as a smuggler (that’s where the pirate vibes come from). He’s grumpy and witty with a golden heart, which gets him into one tough situation after another and even into a folk song. He is joined by a cute companion, Mephi, whom he initially allowed to stay with great reluctance, and has the softest interactions ever with. (Mephi best boy! I would die for Mephi.) I admit, Jovis is probably my favorite character because I am immensely drawn to the reluctant hero archetype.
I absolutely adored Phalue and Ranami’s relationship (Sapphics!! Each with their own POV!!). No miscommunication trope! Phalue, the daughter of her island’s governor, is comfortable in her position and thus complicit in her position. Ranami, a commonor, recognizes the need for rebellion as the Emperor fails to provide for the people. They love each other intensely but also seriously struggle to understand each other, yet they never give up in trying.
I really appreciated that there are no gender or sexuality norms in this fantasy world, allowing for some escapism there. Besides Phalue and Ranami’s relationship, a review by The Alliterates brought my attention to the fact that Jovis discovered his attraction to women, which reinforces the idea that “heterosexuality is not the default.”
Sand has the least chapters, sparsely distributed throughout the book, but every time her narrative pops up, I’m always going “Oh shit. Oh SHIT.” Her perspective is pivotal in unraveling the eerie mysteries of the empire, and definitely the most enigmatic out of the five.
The Magic System as a Tool to Explore Identity and the Legacy of Empire
Now onto the REALLY good stuff… the magic.
The magic system is everything but ordinary – it involves a coding-like procedure, somewhat disturbing body horror, a clever use of linguistics, and ties seamlessly into the themes of empire and identity.
Bone Shard Magic is a practice forbidden to all but the Emperor and those who he bestows such knowledge upon, which include only Lin and Bayan. As the Emperor withers with age, he relies on constructs to rule the numerous islands. Constructs, chimera-like humanoid creatures, roam the empire following the commands written onto the bone shards that power them, and are involved in every aspect of upholding the empire, from bureaucracy to military to trade and more.
The constructs’ batteries are essentially the life force of the people of the Empire. Each resident is forced to contribute a shard of their bone once they reach a certain age in childhood, and thereon forward they are literally tied by their livelihood to the Empire. For their entire life, as long as their shard of bone is in use, the person will gradually be drained of life and health through that link. The Empire maintains its power by robbing the people of their life and suppressing their potential to seek better livelihood as they lose health.
Having established the dynamics of the empire, Stewart expertly explores what constitutes life and identity, and ties it to the discussion of the legacy of an empire’s power.
SPOILERS AHEAD!! (Until the next sword)
By the end of the book, it is revealed that Lin and Bayan are in fact constructs created by the Emperor, who has been toiling for years in his desperate effort to test the boundaries of Bone Shard Magic. The Emperor hopes to clone himself and his late wife, so that he may transfer their memories and live on in artificial bodies not bound by the curses of age. Like many ambitious rulers in history, the Emperor seeks immortality and long-lasting power. The empire sustains itself with the life of its subjects, and intends to further its legacy the same way. However, he falls at the hands of the creations that were meant to give him immortality. Stewart masterfully breaks down the workings of an empire like disassembling a puzzle, and it is delightful to read.
Lin and Bayan’s existence poses some interesting ethical questions regarding self-conscious artificial creations, with extra complications. Like many tales of sentient intelligence, Lin seeks to understand and break the commands that bind her, and establish a sense of self. Her quieter rebellion mirrors the islands’ rising unrest against the rule of The Phoenix Empire. Lin vows to help her people and undermine her father’s rule, but later realizes she is the culmination of her father’s corruption. Lin found her identity through rebellion against the Emperor, but her life was sustained by the Emperor’s tyrannical rule. In every sense, Lin represents both the empire and the revolution.
The plot thickens with every chapter, and explodes at the end. I have to say, The Bone Shard Daughter has one of the best endings – it left me grasping for answers, but it’s not an aggravating cliffhanger. Andrea Stewart’s mastery shines through the world building, plot development, and character work, which connect seamlessly. Needless to say, I can’t wait to read the next installment, The Bone Shard Emperor. A definite 5/5 stars for the delightful and thought-provoking experience! I could talk about The Bone Shard Daughter for days…
Get your copy of The Bone Shard Daughter from Orbit. Happy reading, and I hope that if you read it, you’ll love it as much as I did!
- Jade City Book Review
**This review was originally posted on 08/13/2020.
Jade City is the first book of Fonda Lee’s epic Asian inspired fantasy series, the Green Bone saga, set in a world in which a select few can wield the power of magical jade, a mineral that enhances the user’s senses and movements. The story ties in magic with martial arts, modern international politics, a unique culture, and bitter clan warfare. Oh, and did I mention sibling angst?
Family is duty. Magic is power. Honor is everything.
Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.
Now, the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.
When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone — even foreigners — wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones — from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets — and of Kekon itself.
Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.
The character work is just… *chef’s kiss*. Jade City is very character-centric, which greatly contributes to the immersion of the reader into the world through each character’s mind. The characters are fleshed out in every sense, with their own motivations and resentments that all tie back together. The Kaul family – Lan, Hilo, Shae, and Anden – simply stole my heart. Lan is a leader-type, the cool-headed and tactful Pillar of the No Peak clan, who contrasts Hilo, the Horn of the clan, who is impulsive but big-hearted, drawing the loyalty of many men through charisma. (Hilo can be a dick sometimes, but he loves his family so, so much that anyone can feel it through the page.) Shae, their sister, despite ready ascension into the role of Weather Man of the clan, withdrew from the Green Bone life due to the desire of independence from her judgmental family and escape from the ruthless warrior lifestyle of the clan. Anden, their cousin, adopted into the Kaul family, is a talented but troubled teen with a tragic family history that he struggles to cope with. Such well-realized characters lead to stunningly complex family dynamics through which love for one another persists despite moral differences. (Can I just say that I love love love the portrayal of Shae’s struggle with identity and the underlying misogyny in the clan culture!)
Jade, though powerful, is highly addictive and detrimental to the user if not wielded properly within one’s capabilities. Natural capability to use jade is present only in the Kekonese, but the introduction of SN1 (referred to as shine), a drug that allows non-Kekonese foreigners to use jade safely, makes Kekon a sudden target of international intrigue. Using shine not only allows the non-Kekonese to wield jade, but also allow Green Bone warriors to bear a larger load of jade than they can without substance support, which complicates the power dynamics and hierarchy in the Green Bone culture, which centers around the amount of jade carried by the warrior. The discussion of substance abuse and trade by both greedy foreign parties such as Espenians and Green Bones themselves to maintain power is extremely well explored and invites thought. I have never read anything about clans/gangs, but I believe Fonda has done an incredible job of showing any reader the brutality, honor, and power dynamics involved in a clan setting.
One aspect of the book that pleasantly surprised me is that rather than focusing on the magic system, Fonda Lee focuses on the byproducts of the existence of this magic in the world and the culture built around it. The explanation of the magic system is seamlessly worked in during political discussions and fight scenes, without spoon feeding the reader.
Speaking of fight scenes, wow I am such a sucker for the well choreographed fights in Jade City! It’s not simply “they exchanged blow” but detailed movements that help draw you into the moment leave you with anticipation.
The pacing is not fast, but consistent in building tension and stakes, and no scene feels drawn out too far or added just for shock value. In fact, the pacing is so consistent I entered minor climax scenes without actively thinking “ah here comes the climax” but was in every way left with heavy feelings afterwards. I believe that was excellent in portraying the brutality and unexpected breakouts of violence during tensions that lead to war.
The character-centric aspect of the story makes the conflicts feel very personal, but the perspective from the opposing clan provides insight into tensions and politics outside of clans and Kekon. To the main characters, much is contained within Kekon, which until the spread of SN1, was not regarded with international interest. Yet international politics concerning a small island with valuable resources is not one to be ignored, and I love the parallels with current politics.
Wow, this book was a ride. Time to pick up Jade War!
The culture, since it’s Asian-inspired, bear many semblances to the Chinese culture I grew up in, and I could understand and relate with many concepts such as the filial responsibility to one’s parents’ legacy. My heart swelled at the portrayal and discussion of it in such an epic fantasy. The plot is a bit of a slow-burn, but it’s so so worth it. 9/10! One of the best books I’ve ever read.
Also: Warriors adorned by jewels – 10/10 aesthetics!
Get your copy of Jade City from Orbit. Happy reading!