The leader of the Phoenix Empire is more interested in carving magic symbols into skull shards to create powerful constructs than he is in ruling his people. Lin, his daughter, is desperately seeking his approval and attempting to reclaim her lost memories. Jovis, a smuggler, accidentally becomes a folk hero by smuggling kids away from the bone shard ceremony. Phalue, a governor’s daughter, is drawn into a rebellion by her lover Ranami. And Sand, a woman imprisoned on an island without her memories, is plotting her escape. As these storylines weave together, we’re taken on a stunning journey through a fantastic world with compelling characters.
I absolutely loved this book. I thought it was expertly written, filled with sharp, well-drawn characters and had incredible world-building. This is the kind of novel where the map at the front is paramount to your enjoyment, which is one of my very favorite kinds of fantasies! I think this is an excellent start to the series for several reasons.
First, the system of magic in this book is fully realized and incredibly compelling. It reminded me a bit of The Bone Maker, but with enough of a twist to be different. Every person in the Empire is required to give a shard of their skull to the emperor as a child. The emperor then uses these shards to create constructs- animal hybrids imbued with magical carvings that give them special powers. As the shard is used in the construct, it slowly drains the life of the person who gave it. This is such a fascinating concept that is deeply explored in the novel.
Second, all the characters in this novel are equally compelling. Often when I read books from alternating points of view, I feel myself trying to skip over one perspective that I am less invested in. I didn’t feel that with this book. I loved Lin’s fierce determination, kind heart, and clever maneuvering. I was captivated by Jovis’s search for his missing wife, his magical animal companion, and his growing status as a folk hero for saving children. I was enamored with Phalue and Ranami’s romance, despite their opposing viewpoints, and was rooting for Phalue to see another perspective and help Ranami to topple the unjust government. And, Sand’s mystery of who she is and why she’s stuck on an island was completely compelling. Through their alternating perspectives, each character came alive.
The book did start a little slowly for me, especially as each character was established and the setting and magic system was explained, but the pacing picks up in the middle and there are enough twists to keep it entertaining. I think there’s a bit of predictability in some of the plots, but there were also a few twists that surprised me.
Overall, this is an excellent Asian-influenced fantasy brimming with clever characters. It’s an exciting premise and one I cannot wait to explore again in the next installment.
CW: graphic injuries, mind control