The Bone Witch
A review by Amelia Wellman
When a young girl named Tea accidentally resurrects her dead brother, she sets her future in stone. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch. While the world that she lives in is full of magic, her title makes her feared and ostracized. When another bone witch takes Tea and her brother-turned-familiar to another land for training as an official witch (known as asha), Tea discovers a world that shuns her, but also one that she must protect. Dark forces are approaching quickly and in the face of danger, Tea will have to make a powerful choice.
Tea’s story within The Bone Witch is shown in two parts. One follows her past as she trains as a bone witch, while the other follows her present as she lives in exile for nefarious reasons we’re not privy to at first. Tea is one of two bone witches in the entire world she inhabits and, despite being the most needed of the asha, her connection to the dark makes her an outsider to many. A lot of her past inner thoughts are directed towards her unfair treatment while her present feelings reflect a mind at peace with who and what she is.
Dark asha are so important to this world because of monsters called daeva. They continually rise from their graves after a set amount of time and dark ashas are the only ones that can put them back down before they rampage. Tea begins her training innocently enough, but as her powers grow, so do her moral grey areas. It was fascinating to watch a good, naive character change into a more complicated character as the story progresses. That’s not a story seen often, especially in young adult literature, but Chupeco does it at a pace that feels natural and compels you to want to find out more come the end of this narrative.
The world of The Bone Witch is incredibly similar to the world of geisha. So similar that the book is being directly compared to Memoirs of a Geisha within its official description. After a girl is discovered to have the ability to draw runes (aka magic) they have the choice to go to the Kion province and train to be an asha (aka witch). They live at an asha-ka, wear huas and zivars in their elaborate hair styles, train in dance, song, and magic, and entertain parties at tea houses. Apprentice asha are financially tied to their adoptive mothers and their world, called the Willows, is one revolving around tradition and run completely by women.
In comparison, geisha are from the Gion area of Kyoto. They live in okiya, wear kimono and hair ornaments in their elaborate hair styles, train in dance and song, and entertain parties at tea houses. Apprentice geisha are financially tied to their adoptive mothers and their world, called the Flower and Willow World, is one revolving around tradition and run completely by women.
Similarities in the asha world to the geisha world also lead to similarities in Tea’s life to Sayuri’s life from Memoirs of a Geisha. It plays out almost identically. Tea is cast out by her family and taken to a far off place to train in ancient traditions. She’s treated badly by the house Mother, she’s an outcast among others at her level, she finds a rival in an asha named Zoya, and despite many setbacks, has a meteoric rise to fame and success.
Apart from those similarities, the style and story The Bone Witch offers is an intriguing original narrative. Its prose flows in a very descriptive style and you’ll never want for details. That’s an impressive feat considering that The Bone Witch occurs in its own world that must be built from the ground up. A whole, wide world was created with languages, traditions, warring kingdoms, and more. There are eight major kingdoms and the city-states of Yadosha. There are rivers and forests and lineages of royalty going generations back. Everything is accounted for by the author and it helps the book establish its own voice among the heavy homage to geisha culture.
Looking at the world of the geisha side by side with the world Chupeco presents in The Bone Witch, the only difference is magic, and magic is really where the book finds itself. Described as runes, the magic in this story is different from wands and verbal spell casting. The spells are cast by drawing runes in the open air. Dark asha have only a small selection of dark runes at their disposal as once you call forth the dark it claims you and no other magic will be accessible; but non-dark asha have nearly two hundred to choose from. Drawing the runes larger will make the spell more powerful, but the magic comes from within the person casting it, so it is possible to exhaust it.
While the magic within the story might seem neglected for chapters on end as the dances that asha learn are described, it’s present in everything that happens within this world. There’s the magic of healing that comes from plants and herbs. There’s common magic, vain little spells sewn into clothing or dabbed behind the ears like perfume to change your appearance. And powerful magic, the magic that the asha wield, is weaved into everything they do. Having the magic come from runes and hand movement, and not spell books or verbal incantation, was brilliant atop the geisha-inspired base of the story. The etiquette lessons in grace and the dances taught to the asha are the spell casting, just without the urgency.
Check It Out! I’m almost tempted to say that you should just go read Memoirs of a Geisha, but, despite having kimonos and okiyas by different names, The Bone Witch offers originality as well. By the end, I did want more of the present day story where Tea is exiled and less of the past story where what everyone was wearing is the main aspect of it. If Chupeco’s goal of a trilogy comes to pass, I’m sure the story will move away from pretty clothing and into the dirty business of killing daeva, which is where the originality and depth of the characters and land will absolutely shine their brightest!
The Bone Witch will be available March 1st, 2017.