Rin Chupeco- The Bone Witch

Themes Explored: fantasy, paranormal, young adult, coming of age, witches, Geisha, death, life, resurrection, mentor-mentee relationship, sibling relationships, politics, hunting, magic, necromancy, ghosts

Synopsis: When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. Tea finds solace and guidance with an older bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training.

Review: In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha-one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles…and make a powerful choice.(Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: This story combines Memoirs of a Geisha with every zombie-vampire-ghost-monster movie ever made. I started this book with no expectations and came away with mixed feelings. Few of the young adult fantasies I have read utilize Japanese culture as a background. The geisha theme plays a strong role in the evolution of the character Tea. The Bone Witch imagines a world where different witches possess various powers, with bone witches having the power over life and death. As a result, the bone witches, or Dark Asha, must deal with discrimination and outright hatred. However, they perform necessary tasks that keep terrors away, so the villagers begrudgingly accept the bone witches existence.

Tea comes from a family of witches. Two of her sisters possess power over water and healing. One of her brothers, Fox, joins the local army and sets off to fight an unknown enemy.  Fox comes home in a coffin. Overcome with grief, Tea feels a quickening in her power and raises Fox from the dead. Scared, the villagers view Tea and Fox as abominations. Another bone witch, Mykaela, feels the disturbance in the “dark” and discovers Tea. Mykaela takes Tea on as an apprentice. Fox tags along since he is neither dead nor fully alive and needs Tea to keep him alive.

 Bone witches train to raise monsters called daeva, kill them before they regenerate, and harvest the magical stones found in their innards. This process repeats every seven years. Soldiers, called Deatseekers, and other routinely die from daeva ripping them apart, though the book usually glosses over the gore. Under the tutelage of Mykaela, Tea studies hard and sacrifices much to learn her craft, even though she’s shunned for the kind of magic she can wield in some circles. Tea studies at an “asha-training” house and must master the fine arts of entertaining. This includes dancing, singing, music, combat, and history/politics. Each asha completes this training over the course of several years in order to, eventually, entertain wealthy clients at the various teahouses and private parties held throughout the kingdoms. Influential asha serve as political advisors, bodyguards, and, sometimes, the spouses of kings.

Each asha must build up a collection of hua, gowns that seem similar to traditional kimonos. These garments contain magic woven into the fabric that enhances the asha’s beauty and grace. About 2/3rds of the book deals with Tea’s life at the asha house and her emerging power. As this is a young adult novel, Tea, naturally, contains the most talent and power ever seen in the kingdom. Combined with teenage willfulness and arrogance, she presents a formidable challenge for her instructors. As Mykaela’s health fails from years of overextending her magical abilities, Tea soon finds herself to thrust into real responsibility before anyone thinks she is ready.

Narrative wise, the chapters alternate between Tea as an apprentice from ages 12 to 15 and her exile. By the age of 17, Tea lives as a hermit in caves on a distant beach. A bard, who feels more like an investigative journalist, finds her so he can tell her story. Over the course of their conversation, Tea describes her childhood, raising Fox from the dead, her apprenticeship, and her plans for revenge. During her seven day conversation with the Bard, Tea raises numerous daeva from the dead to create a monstrous army, her uses for them left unanswered.

A unexplored love triangle (because all YA novels seem to require triangle-shaped love affairs) emerges between Tea, Prince Kance, and his cousin Kalan. Thankfully, the romance angle takes a backseat and comes across more of a well-developed crush than romance. Kalan, the battle hardened 17 year  old, felt like a false character. His age and depiction do not mesh, I pictured him as a battle hardened 30 year old not a teenager.

Anyways, Tea and Fox remain the two focal characters. While Fox is technically dead, he shares a unique relationship with Tea. Since she brought him back to life, he became her “familiar”. His life “energy” ties in directly to Tea’s magic. Due to their sibling relationship before his change in body temperature, Fox and Tea have an affectionate but slightly combative dynamic. He chafes at the boundaries of his new reality and attempts to develop a life outside of the asha house. However, he also accompanies Tea everywhere and serves as her voice of reason, when she chooses to listen. By the end of the book, Tea and Fox no long talk with  each other.

The world building is beautiful. Chupeco dedicates long passages to creating the multicultural yet strongly Japanese tinted world. By the end of the book, more questions exist than answers. Why the daeva exist, Tea’s exile, her great betrayal, why she wants revenge, and her estrangement from Fox all remain unanswered mysteries. Hopefully these mysteries will receive answers in the sequel.

Finally, despite the excellent world building, not a lot happens in this novel. As in nothing happens until the final two chapters. Most of the book revolves solely around Tea’s apprenticeship and the world of the asha houses. While I enjoyed the book, the lack of answers and minimal action made the narrative a bit of a slog to get through. However, I am intrigued enough to read the sequel.

The Bone Witch, 2017, Sourcebooks Fire, ISBN: 9781492635826

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