The Bone Witch wasn’t at all what I expected. Although the cover is gorgeous, I wonder if it does a disservice to the book, because it implies a very different story from the one it contains. It may be the tone of the series as a whole, but it’s not the tone of this particular volume.
The Bone Witch has a Memoirs of a Geisha-esque set-up. The story is framed by a narrator, with a bard meeting our protagonist, Tea, in the future, but most of the action takes place in a sort of fantasy Kyoto, where asha — powerful female magic users who are also entertainers — live, train and perform. When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother and is discovered to be a Bone Witch, she’s quickly swept away from her village before the mob can kill her, and brought to this new world, where she must work her way up from servant to asha, while learning her magic, fighting people’s fear of her, and discovering the darker costs of her power.
While I picked up the book expecting epic fantasy and drama, it’s the quieter moments that work the best. The lessons, the training, the dresses, the friendships. Tea’s trials and successes. The book is far more world and character-based than I think the packaging implies, as that seems to reflect the ‘bone witch’ met by the bard, and not the one we spend most of the story with, but Tea has a great voice, and the setting means the story is packed with interesting and varied female characters.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot unsaid that needs more explanation, like why these female warriors are also entertainers at all. They use their magic for many things other than dancing, so why do they act like geisha? Or the fact that bone witches are persecuted, yet everyone is fascinated with Tea, to the point that she also seems genuinely popular. The book is full of interesting ideas that are not necessarily followed through or explored, either in the world building or in their impact on the plot. At least, not yet. As this is the first in a series, and the book’s ending implies a lot of drama in the future, perhaps this stuff will all be explored eventually.
But for now, I enjoyed the low-key nature of much of the book. If you’re looking for a book all about action and dark magic, this one might not satisfy, although it does have both. But if you’re looking for female-focussed fantasy that’s more focussed on life and character than on action, then it’s a promising, absorbing read, with a lot of potential for the future of the series.