"The Bone Witch" is a fascinating set of intertwined tales: the first in italics is told by a bard who has encountered the young bone witch (at about 17) after she has been exiled and the second is longer and the brunt of the story about this same bone witch's past and development, told from her point of view. The main story reads like an intricate oral narration of Tea's life as a bone witch from her discovery by Mykaela when she resurrects her brother, Fox, to her trainings and beyond.
Tea and Mykaela are a special and rare kind of asha called dark asha (insult term for a dark asha is a bone witch). Other asha have some combination of elemental powers. Tea's sisters are witches/asha as well, though much smaller scale and less powerful than the dark asha. Dark asha have some kind of power over death, being able to raise the dead (with their consent- except animals which can be raised without consent), but also to heal and treat illnesses. Their main job, which takes most of their energy/life force, is to raise the daeva and kill them at set intervals to take their bezoars, so that they cannot rise on their own and wreak havoc. Daeva were created by the False Prince and only dark asha have enough power to deal with them. A daeva which was not dealt with had killed Fox. We learn through the daeva created by a bone witch, that they have special names and are more tame like young animals in the right hands (e.g. taurvi, akvan, indar).
What I did not expect from the way the synopsis is written is the style of the story. This book seems very clearly inspired and closely related to "Memoirs of a Geisha" which surprised me. If you exchange geisha for asha (a term for a witch in this fantasy world), then you have most of this story. The asha are trained in special homes with a head of house ("Mother") where they begin as servants and then apprentice (she is Mykaela, the only other bone witch's, apprentice)- although the term is misleading, as they are an apprentice in general, not to one specific asha. Asha are primarily (90% of their classes) trained in the arts of entertainment and conversation, with classes in music, singing, dancing, etc. They then also have some classes in magic and fighting, but not all asha continue in these classes (depending on skills). The asha have teahouses where men gather to speak with the asha and watch them perform and the asha are paid for their company. They have one major performance which is a source of jealousy, if you do not get the main role, and this creates a rivalry between Shadi, an asha at Tea's house, and Zoya, an asha at another house, which leads to Tea's embarrassment and discovery (when Zoya tries to shame her house by having her dress in Shadi's hua- which sounds like a kimono to me- and play her sitar before Tea is trained). This backfires when Tea's magic takes over and the incident catapults her from servant to actual apprentice with classes. The asha also have "Sisters" which are older asha that give them specialized training. Tea has 4, of which Mykaela is one. All the asha-in-training make a debut which is allowed after testing by the asha-ka, a group of leaders.
There is little romance in this book, but I found that it was unnecessary and the book certainly wasn't wanting. Tea fixates on the prince (Prince Kance) with the hint that they have conversations not explicitly detailed in the course of the book, though I am not 100% sure I get why/that I buy into this relationship (maybe just the enigmatic alure of power/royalty?). However, I do not think the book was lacking, and I assume romance will develop more in sequels.
I found the whole asha process fascinating. All the asha are dressed specially in hua and with special hairpins. These have a spin from geisha too- some of the hairpins have special significance (e.g. Tea gets one early which allows her to filter some of the magic from overloading her senses).
I was most interested in the heartsglass, which everyone- not just asha- wears and carries. The heartsglass is like a piece of yourself and is crafted when each person becomes a teenager. You can exchange your heartsglass with another individual and this is akin to marriage. The heartsglass will wither without attention- unless you are an asha, and then it will not (if you lose it, it is gone forever/cannot be replaced and you are susceptible to illness/less able to heal). For most people, once it withers, you can get another (as one of Tea's sisters consistently does). Heartsglass can also be forged by using memories (which Tea gives at times); for most people, giving these memories means you will no longer have them unless they are very strong and then will come back after a while, but for dark asha, they retain the memories and are only weakened a little. Tea, as a dark asha, can read heartsglass to see when others are lying, sick (and if so, what), embarrassed, interested/bored, etc.
Chupeco has really created an intricate world here which is fascinating to read. I think the synopsis is misleading and might direct away some potential readers and attract others who like different kinds of stories. I myself was on the fence about it from the description, but it was not at all like I expected. It would be better marketed as a twist on "Memoirs of a Geisha," with more descriptions of what asha are really like (e.g. not just witches). It seems that most of the magic is instinctive and the training is more for making sure their powers do not prevent them from maintaining traditional gender roles, though this is a minor theme, and then secondarily about selecting the spells which are to be used in which situations.
It is an incredibly descriptive book and has more information about small things (hua, hairpins, etc.) and lessons (this is the vast majority of the book) than action. The traditional gender roles is a pervasive, but less focused/minor, theme and interesting not only for Tea and women in cities, but also because Likh, a young boy, is also trying to break them to become an asha and dance with them.
Despite the limited story of training/lessons, the book was incredibly engaging. If you like action packed books, this may not be for you. The action scenes are few. At about 90% of the way through, the story begins to grow, as Tea goes to fight the dragon/avi, shirking her customers who pay for her attention/time (but not her skills). This leads me to believe future books will contain more action.
Despite it not being at all what I expected, I loved it- such an amazing world and story. It fascinated me and I could not put it down! I am really looking forward to the next installments, which promise to be more action-packed. The ending is very intriguing, and I am very curious to hear/read about how Tea's backstory continued/progressed. If only I could continue now!!
Please note that I received an ARC from the publisher through netgalley in exchange for my honest review.