Title: The Bone Witch
Author: Rin Chupeco
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
The beast raged; it punctured the air with its spite. But the girl was fiercer.
Tea is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy makes her a bone witch, who are feared and ostracized in the kingdom. For theirs is a powerful, elemental magic that can reach beyond the boundaries of the living—and of the human.
Great power comes at a price, forcing Tea to leave her homeland to train under the guidance of an older, wiser bone witch. There, Tea puts all of her energy into becoming an asha, learning to control her elemental magic and those beasts who will submit by no other force. And Tea must be strong—stronger than she believes possible. Because war is brewing in the eight kingdoms, war that will threaten the sovereignty of her homeland… and threaten the very survival of those she loves.
After learning that the author of this book is Filipino, The Bone Witch immediately became one of my most anticipated releases in 2017. It took me a little over a year to finally get to it, but well, I can’t really do anything about that now, yes? If I’m being honest, I have built this up in my head so much that I was worried that my expectations might not be met. Most of them were not. But I have learned that my expectations not being met is not necessarily a bad thing, because The Bone Witch gave me an experience I cannot really compare to anything else. With all my mixed feelings, there’s definitely going to be a lot of babbling in this review – you’ve been warned.
Framing and narration of the story. From this synopsis alone, we are led into thinking that The Bone Witch is about a girl named Tea learning to become one of the asha. Additionally, the mention of an impending war leads us to assume that there is a great urgency for Tea to learn the ways of the asha. However, at its innermost core, The Bone Witch is about an innocent girl gifted with necromancy and the events that changed her into a vengeful, terrifying force to be reckoned with. At its innermost core, this is, more or less, a villain’s origin story (although using “villain” oversimplifies too many things).
And I think that’s why this novel has garnered an ocean of mixed opinions and responses from readers. With mentions of witches, necromancy, and war, many readers, myself included, start The Bone Witch with expectations that are formulaic to the fantasy genre: girl learns about her powers (in this case, by accidentally raising her brother from the dead), girl is taught to control said powers, girl faces off with antagonist, and girl triumphs.
But the book actually veers away from this linear formula. Told in dual perspectives with different tenses of time (i.e. past and present), we are immediately shown the aftermath: Tea abandoning the traditions of the asha and getting herself exiled from the eight kingdoms. We then spend most of the story trying to make sense of the past in order to find answers to the questions: What went wrong? Why was Tea exiled? What does present Tea plan to do next? In many ways, reading The Bone Witch felt like assembling an extremely complicated, occasionally perplexing puzzle – finding a certain arrangement to things, fitting pieces of information together (or at least trying to), filling in gaps – and I immensely enjoyed doing so.
Witches and world-building. The asha were actually less like witches with black cats and broomsticks and more like geisha-esque female magic wielders and strategists. They were trained not only in the magical arts but also in the performing arts (singing, dancing, playing instruments), warrior fighting techniques, history, and politics. I was recently told by the author herself that while the asha were inspired by the geisha culture in Japan, the conceptualization of bone witches was actually rooted in Filipino folklore(!!!). Specifically, a bone witch is essentially similar to our mangkukulam, which is sort of a cross between a witch doctor and a voodoo priest/priestess (segue: I suggest you look it up because Filipino folklore is incredibly fascinating!!!). If I’m not mistaken, female mangkukulam are more common in our local myths. But I digress. While a part of me ultimately loved how the author redefined and re-imagined the image of what a witch is, another part of me could not stop feeling like the asha were repeatedly being exploited, and that did not sit well with me at all.
The world-building in this story was utterly phenomenal, albeit occasionally too overwhelming. On one hand, I was constantly fascinated by the multicultural influences evident in the setting and completely enchanted by all the creative wonders present in this fantastical realm. I’ve never encountered anything like the setting in The Bone Witch. What I love even more is how the author managed to maintain a lovely balance between presenting a seemingly utopian magical world and not shying away from societal, economic, political and ideological imperfections. Power and gender struggles were seamlessly incorporated (e.g. only women were allowed to become asha, and likewise, only men were allowed to become deathseekers).
On the other hand, every now and then, it felt like there were too many little details and too much information to remember. I felt a little lost and a lot confused sometimes as I read. From distinguishing the eight kingdoms from one another to remembering the definitions of all the jargon tossed around in the dialogue, I occasionally struggled to keep up. I think it would have been really helpful to have a glossary of some sort at the end of the book. Despite this, I’d still say that the world-building of The Bone Witch is definitely one of its strongest assets.
Characters and character relationships. I genuinely enjoyed reading about Tea as the main character. The back-and-forth narration proved to be remarkably effective in highlighting Tea’s character development as well as the drastic shift in her personality within a relatively limited timeframe. It was easy to identify pivotal moments and turning points which would eventually lead to changes in her character, and witnessing clueless, innocent, reckless Tea grow into a more mature, more perceptive, and more wary soul was so—wow, it was just great! As her journey as an asha apprentice progressed, the slight annoyance I had with her whiny immaturity (which was understandable, given her age at the time) gradually disappeared and paved way to effortless empathy until I found myself rooting wildly for Tea to succeed.
Tea’s bond with her brother Fox as well as Tea’s unlikely friendship with her mentor Mykaela were my favorite relationships in The Bone Witch. The unconditional love Tea had for them was so obvious and wonderful and touching. I appreciated how the budding romance did not overpower the story, and I also liked its portrayal, which was more of a realistic childhood infatuation than an all-consuming, passionate love. Plus, The Bone Witch offers a cast of diverse characters(!!!) – all of whom developed fascinating, believable relationships between and among each other.
Plot and pacing. From the many reviews I’ve read, a number of people have pointed out that not much happened in The Bone Witch in terms of plot, and I agree. The Bone Witch was propelled forward by its complex characters, instead of being driven by a plot. In addition to this, I think one of the author’s intentions was to properly lay down the foundation and framework of the world she was trying to build, which placed some constraints on the rate of the story’s progression. For me, it was completely understandable because there was definitely a lot of groundwork to cover: from the history of all the eight kingdoms, to the many years of tradition strictly adhered to by the asha (including the cultural significance of their wardrobe), to the fundamental importance of heartsglass, to the story’s own set of folklore and myths, and so on.
I do admit to occasionally skimming through passages and I do think that the story needed to be further trimmed down, but for the most part, I ultimately loved how the story’s quiet pacing allowed me to really explore the nooks and crannies of its setting and to breathe in a melting pot of cultures. The story moved along slowly, yes, but in the sense that it was very intimate, immersive and engaging.
Writing style. I honestly believe that to call the author of The Bone Witch a good writer is a completely unfair understatement. With an ability to effortlessly spin words into wonderfully breathtaking imagery, a natural expertise in navigating through complicated webs of details (most of which are probably of her own making), and a knack for creating compelling and complex characters, Rin Chupeco wields magic of her own whenever she writes. Her writing style is thoughtful, deliberate and secretly calculating, veiled under descriptive flourishes and vivid images. The Bone Witch was extremely heavy on details and nuances, but they’re not without purpose. The many intricacies of the novel have proven that Rin Chupeco has an endlessly imaginative vision, a burning passion for her craft, and the marks of a brilliant, captivating storyteller.
In summary. Wrapped in intrigue, mystery, and high fantasy, The Bone Witch is a magnificent gift to the literary world. Tea’s story is impactful and inspiring. Is this a book I’d actively recommend to everyone? Not exactly. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to readers with very little attention spans or who are only looking for thrill and action sequences. The book leans more heavily on engaging rather than exciting. Reading The Bone Witch requires a great deal of patience and open-mindedness, but trust me, the rewards at the end of the story are worth a hundredfold.
Quick disclosure: I received a digital copy of The Bone Witch as part of my participation in a blog tour for its sequel, The Heart Forger. This neither affects my opinion nor the content of my review. Thank you very much to the blog tour organizers (The Fantastic Flying Book Club) and the publisher for the opportunity!
Excerpt from the book:
I knew it was foolish to make Likh something that he was not, but I never did understand why the role of an asha was restricted to women alone. In the course of my wanderings, I have seen men who could be just as graceful as women. Men who, with the constant training we have had to endure, could perhaps rival even the likes of Lady Shadi. “Are there any male dancers in Drycht?”
“The royal court seemed to prefer the women more,” I said.
“In a court of men, it is likely. But males are not the only people who can rule a realm. If women are encouraged to fight and draw runes and strive to be a man’s equal in those regard, then why can’t a man be encouraged to sing and dance and entertain as we do?”
“In Drycht,” I admitted, “men consider such trivialities beneath them. The performing arts are not a show of strength. They are a sign of weakness.”
“Then perhaps we should carve a world one day where the strength lies in who you are rather than in what they expect you to be.”
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