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REVIEW: The Bone Palace by Amanda Downum

Dear Ms. Downum,

I snatched up your debut novel, The Drowning City, when it was published last year. I’d been anticipating its release since the acquisition announcement. Traditional fantasy books about female necromancers? Sign me up! Unfortunately, the reality didn’t live up to my hopes and I found myself unable to get into it at all. It wasn’t until a couple months ago that I was finally able to finish it. Based on that novel alone, I probably would never have picked up another one of your novels. But then I saw that your sophomore effort, The Bone Palace, was getting good reviews on various venues. Enough that I grew curious enough to give your work another try. I’m very glad I made that decision.

The Bone Palace by Amanda DownumA few years after the events of The Drowning City, Isyllt Iskaldur is still a necromancer serving as an agent of the Crown. When a young prostitute is found murdered, Isyllt is the one sent to investigate. Good thing because the dead woman had in her possession a ring that once belonged to the nation’s beloved, but very dead, queen. In fact, the pretty bauble should still be in her tomb.

That little fact doesn’t leave many suspects, so Isyllt looks into the current affairs of the vampires who live beneath the city. Time is of the essence because the king is somewhat sensitive about matters involving his dead wife and while he’s currently out of the country, waging a war, he’s expected to return shortly. It’s in everyone’s best interest that the matter be taken care of before he finds out his wife’s tomb was desecrated.

Thankfully, Isyllt is able to gather enough information to resolve the case to the Crown’s satisfaction with the king none the wiser. But Isyllt finds herself unable to let go — even more so when she learns other young immigrant women have been vanishing off the streets and turning up dead elsewhere. Some pieces just don’t add up, and her continued investigation leads to a web of intrigue filled with lies and secrets, spanning back several decades.

While Isyllt investigates murders outside the palace, Savedra Severos, royal concubine to the prince, deals with assassination attempts inside it. Many members of the other noble houses were angered when, instead of choosing a daughter from one of their number, the king married his son off to a foreign, barbarian princess. But Savedra’s attempts to discern the people responsible leads her to an even bigger puzzle: a woman bearing her family’s name that no one remembers. Even odder, no books hold any mention of who this woman might be, not even the family records. Or perhaps more accurately, no books within her reach because Savedra’s quest for knowledge soon reveals that nearly every book that may hold the key to the woman’s identity is missing.

Where Isyllt’s and Savedra’s storylines intersect rests a vast conspiracy involving things both human and not, the political and the magical, the living and the dead, and love and revenge. And to Isyllt’s everlasting regret, her mentor, teacher, and former lover, the royal spymaster Kiril Orfion stands at the heart of it.

How glad am I that I gave your work another try! If I hadn’t, I would have missed out on a very refreshing read. I simply loved how many women were found in the pages of this book. Not just in major roles but also in background roles as well! Any long-time fantasy reader will know that it’s been an uphill slog to get equal representation of the sexes in the genre, let alone representations that don’t reduce female characters to damsels in distress or targets of victimization. Even when we find strong female characters, there are often only a few of them against an army of male characters. The Bone Palace upends that convention and I am glad for it.

Even better, there are women of all kinds: immigrants like Isyllt and the missing girls, women of color like the police investigator, transgendered women like Savedra, an unorthodox princess who loves to fight but who isn’t reduced to the tomboy archetype. And not only that, but there were relationships between them, relationships that were not based on competition and jealousy — even between Savedra and the princess! In addition, there are sexualities of all kinds. It’s all really just wonderful to see and read, especially when none of these things are treated as out of the ordinary and no one is made out to be a freak. Because let’s be honest, other novels involving trans characters often reduce them to such roles.

Another thing I loved were the vampires. These are not the sexy men and women urban fantasy and paranormal romance have made popular as of late. These are monsters. Creepy monsters with alien ways of thinking. And I loved how terrifying the vampire queens were. (Oh yes, did I mention that there were vampire women as well?)

I also thought the setting was used to great effect. There are lots of creepy undertones, what with vampires living under the city, many haunted locations, and nasty, malicious magic. The last item also extends to the antagonist whose use of magical abilities were innovative and original.

I was very ambivalent about the relationship between Isyllt and Kiril. I think I was meant to be more invested in it based on what I read in the narrative, but I honestly didn’t care about the state of it. It had nothing to do with the age difference. It didn’t even have anything to do with the fact that he was her teacher and she was his student. Maybe if we’d actually seen that, I would have been repulsed but it was far enough in the past and we’d seen enough from Isyllt’s perspective to know that she was the instigator, that it didn’t bother. I wish I could have been more interested in the relationship because I think it would have made the novel’s climax more hard-hitting. As it was, I simply rolled my eyes at Isyllt and what she chose to do.

In the end, I’m glad I gave your work another try because I would have missed out on a great read. As far as I’m concerned, this is a step up from your previous endeavor. Best part of all? It’s a genuinely standalone novel, a rarity in fantasy these days, so no previous knowledge of The Drowning City is required to give this one a try. B

My regards,
Jia

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Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

17 Comments

  1. KMont
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 15:16:43

    I really want to give this one a try. I haven’t read The Drowning City yet, either, but it’s in my TBR pile. And this one stands alone? That really is nice. I’m a little leery of series, simply because I’m usually so far behind that it’s daunting to think of starting one, or getting into one just to be disappointed down the line as the series progresses.

    Thanks, you make this one sound pretty good!

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    Dec 16, 2010 @ 15:21:54

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  3. Jia
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 15:23:06

    @KMont: The main flaw of Drowning City for me was that the characterization was weak. In Bone Palace, there’s a better balance between running around and characterization.

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  4. Heather
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 16:09:21

    You had me until vampires.

    Were there vamps in the first one? If so, I totally blocked them out.

    I enjoyed Drowning City but it didn’t blow me away. I thought the cover was great, though.

    It sounds like this will be a library book.

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  5. Christine M.
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 16:24:05

    The covers are absolutely gorgeous. Should I pick them up would it be better to read Drowning City first and know that Bone Palace will be better? Or should I skip DC and pretend it wasn’t written?

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  6. Jia
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 16:31:31

    @Christine M.: I really like the covers Orbit put together for these books as well.

    I don’t think it’s necessary to read Drowning City if you don’t have the inclination. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read nor is it even a terrible book. It’s just that you can tell it’s very much a first novel. But there’s nothing in that book that’s required knowledge at all to understand Bone Palace. The only repeat character is Isyllt, and she’s the necromancer of the series title.

    I’m really on the border, I guess, if it comes down to it. You’re not missing anything if you skip Drowning City but I’m a completionist myself so I understand that the act of skipping can be pretty tough sometimes.

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  7. Maryann Miller
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 16:43:08

    What a wonderful review. I am not a fan of this genre at all, but I must say I’m tempted by this review. I will let some of my kids who like this type of book know about it.

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  8. DS
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 17:46:27

    I’m going to give this on a try. You might want to fix the Kindle link. It goes to a 404 error although I could get to the Kindle by going to Amazon’s mmpb page and then picking the Kindle edition on the list.

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  9. Avid Reader
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 19:51:09

    I’d read it for the cover and title alone! It sounds like a worthwhile read.

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  10. Marumae
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 20:53:17

    I’m very tempted to hop over to the library and pick this up. The cover, the title and the fact that the main character is a necromancer are definite draws! Jia I gotta say I love your reviews because you have the same taste as me. Is the first book even WORTH picking up at all? I have a weird thing where I *have* to read all the books in the series first before I pick one up…

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  11. Roxie
    Dec 16, 2010 @ 22:35:27

    I actually enjoyed The Drowning City more than The Bone Palace – and I’m not sure why. I’ll agree the characterization was weaker in the first novel, but the second novel had a tendency to drag a bit in the middle of the book. If I remember correctly, there were a couple places in The Bone Palace where I popped out of the story – something I didn’t do in the first novel.

    The number of strong female characters in The Bone Palace was refreshing, but I missed having a strong male character somewhere. I keep hoping that Isyllt will run into Asheris in the next book. He was interesting.

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  12. Jia
    Dec 17, 2010 @ 05:09:48

    @DS: Thanks for pointing that out. It should be fixed now.

    @Marumae: Well, if you’re tired of the same old, same old settings in traditional fantasy, Drowning City is worth a try. The setting for that is Asian-based. It didn’t quite work for me because it read as wallpaper-y and while the tourist-y makes sense for Isyllt since she isn’t from that particular country in question, the other two narrators in the book were. On the other hand, I freely admit that readers not from that region in Asia probably wouldn’t even notice that the narratives for those two characters were off.

    (I wouldn’t call the setting for Bone Palace the same old, same old either since it’s more Russian/Slavic-based than pseudo-European medieval-lite, but the focus on courtly intrigue is more familiar than revolutions and revolts in a Southeast Asian setting.)

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  13. Grace
    Dec 17, 2010 @ 07:43:47

    To echo a previous poster, I’d pick this up just for the cover and title. Both are gorgeous.

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  14. Jane
    Dec 17, 2010 @ 10:03:28

    The covers for her books have been amazingly good.

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  15. marumae
    Dec 17, 2010 @ 20:48:57

    @Jia:

    I think I will look this up, I like the idea of fantasy in a different setting then stock standard Anglo Europe. It’s too bad that it apparently read as a flat tour guide pamphlet rather then a real setting.

    One of my favorite novels by Martha Wells, Wheel of the Infinite has a distinctly South East Asian setting if you’re looking for something different in setting I’d say pick up that. :) One of the reasons I love is it the heroine is an older heroine, but still pretty fierce.

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  16. Jessica
    Dec 18, 2010 @ 12:33:14

    I really liked Drowning City, possibly even better than Bone Palace. For me, the setting was excellent, I got a very strong sense of place while reading and I liked that it felt like a completely new type of place, for a fantasy book.

    I was initially put off by the vampires in Bone Palace, but soon decided that they were just fine because they were not your typical vamps at all.

    And while Bone Palace does stand alone, there is a little more depth to the plot and some of the characters when the two books are read together.

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  17. orannia
    Dec 19, 2010 @ 18:12:57

    Hmm. I’m torn. I really like the sound of The Bone Palace, and am rapt that it can be read as a standalone…but all the comments have me dithering. Hmm. Maybe I’ll try The Bone Palace and then see what I think – I can always go back :) And my library has both – I *heart* my library!

    ReplyReply

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