Review by Louise Brecht
Page Street Publishing, MacMilian Publishers, 2019
400 pages, hardcover, $17.99 USD, 978-1-62414-737-1
Ages 14+, Grades 9+
Young Adult, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure
Gran said once that in families with long lines of bone magic—families like ours—power is like a fire that burns hotter with each new generation. She meant it to be encouraging, and she had pride in her eyes when she said it, but by then I already knew the truth—the stronger the blaze, the harder it is to control. And the faster it destroys.
Bone magic would be dangerous in my hands.
Saskia Holte fears the fury of bone magic’s flame. She sees safety in life as a tutor, security in a love match with her suitor, Declan, comfort in the familiarity of her home in Midwood. She is deeply troubled, however, by the possibility that the life she has chosen may not be the one she is granted. Her kenning, a coming-of-age bone-reading rite that determines the destinies of all Kastelian seventeen-year-olds, is imminent; the Bone Charmer tasked with interpreting the bones directives is none other than her mother. Della Holte’s magic is legendary. Saskia is familiar with her mother’s power, with the care she’s taken to prepare special bones—her Gran’s bones—for her daughter’s kenning. In no small way, Saskia is chagrined that the keys to her tomorrows rest in her mother’s hands.
Della Holte’s declaration that Saskia will apprentice as a Bone Charmer, and further, that she will be mated to her childhood nemesis, Bram, draws a storm of protest from her daughter that ends in a rancorous tug-of-war over one Gran’s bones. Much to Della’s horror, the bone is fractured in the tussle, which indicates that Saskia’s future will be divided. She’ll lead separate and dual lives: the one she’s chosen for herself and the one that’s been chosen for her. Both are fraught with subterfuge, danger, and unimaginable consequences; Saskia can survive in only one iteration. Her life will depend on the decisions she makes—and on the magic it takes to mend the splintered bone.
Each of the protagonist’s lifelines is artfully crafted and independently compelling. Chapter by alternating chapter, Breeana Shields weaves the threads of two Saskias into a seamless whole in a story that is hard to put down. Her authorial choice of Saskia as her own narrator adds a distinctive aura of intimacy, of honesty, from beginning to end.
Crackling with unresolved tension, apprentice Saskia and Bram leave Midwood for Ivory Hall, Kastelia’s institute of higher magical learning. Existence there isn’t easy. Master Bone Charmer Latham’s vile magic, Saskia’s expulsion, and the murder of her mother’s intermediary, Esmee, definitely keep the plot moving. The overarching conflict, however, is internal: between Saskia herself and her preconceptions of Bram’s character.
Back in Midwood, the other Saskia is content with home life, work, and her relationship with Declan, until her serenity is shattered by the brazen theft of her father’s bones. She’s aghast at the vibrant shadow bone market she discovers as she searches for them, and traumatized by fear as members of the town council are murdered. Here again, she’s conflicted by her beliefs—in society, in Declan, in magic.
As drawn as I am to the duality of the telling, Shields’ characters are strongest in the composite work that is The Bone Charmer. Saskia’s coming-of-age is predicated on loss: the loss of her Gran, her father, her security. Even more than Bram or Declan, she’s conflicted by her relationship with her mother. In the power of their mother/daughter disagreements, she doesn’t see the similarities between Della’s nature and her own, or feel the power of their connection to magic—until she’s called to action by the strength of their love.
I am drawn into Shields’ Kastelian world as inevitably as Saskia is drawn into bone magic. It’s a distinct society built on an ossuary—the bones, literally and figuratively, of all living creatures that have passed. It is also one in which bad coincides with good, greed with generosity, and pain with pleasure. Kastelians are governed more by fate than freedom, a fact that galls Saskia even after her Gran explains they are:
…partners in the dance of life. Always circling each other, touching and then coming apart again, both made more beautiful by the existence of the other.
But The Bone Charmer doesn’t end with Gran’s wisdom. Death, destruction, loss, and magic all play a role in drawing Saskia’s two lives into one, setting the stage for the next installment of her story. There’s a sequel coming—it’s a feeling I have, in my bones.
Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestions, Pearls, Collage, and Sweatink.