By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Much attention is given to opening sentences. Can a great opening sentence make or break a book? Is there even such a thing as a great opening sentence? Would it be so terrible if we had to wait until Pride and Prejudice‘s second sentence to find out that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife? Does “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” even actually mean anything? I’d grown skeptical about the cult of the opening sentence, until I read this one, which, while not technically the first sentence (there’s a prologue first), is what begins the main narrative of Rin Chupeco’s The Bone Witch:
Let me be clear: I never intended to raise my brother from his grave, though he may claim otherwise.
You’re intrigued now, aren’t you? I can tell. The speaker of this attention-grabbing sentence is Tea, a newly anointed “bone witch” at the start of the novel. It is her unwitting raising of Fox, her deceased brother, which brings her abilities to the attention of the ashas and sets her apart from her sisters, who, while also witches, have more charming talents, like finding lost things and growing herbs. As the parent of a small child, this made me draw strange parallels with Disney’s seven billion Tinkerbell movies, and now, every time I am forced to watch one, I eagerly await the discovery that Tink can raise the dead. It would be a good plot twist.
Anyway, Tea, along with Fox, now acting as her familiar, is whisked away in the typical YA literature fashion of a bewildered teen with newly discovered magic powers, taken by Lady Mykaela, another bone witch, to live at the House Valerian, where Tea’s training can commence. Now, here is where I became a little confused. All this bone witch business appealed to my slightly worrying fascination with all things macabre; I’m not saying I’d necessarily like to be able to revive dead bodies with an unthinking sweep of the hand, but it would be a pretty cool party trick. If you go to parties in graveyards, anyway. But Tea’s asha training often seems rather more akin to being at a finishing school in The Princess Diaries, but one where the objective is to learn how to deal with monsters, rather than Chris Pine; she has to learn how to dance and sing, although there’s also combat training, which, as is the contractual requirement of all chosen ones, she is rubbish at. Ashas are essentially geishas, hired to entertain rich men with their dancing skills, which I cannot help but feel is a serious waste of the whole bringing-dead-rats-back-to-life magical situation. The Bone Witch, consequently, is either gleefully odd or deeply baffling, depending on your perspective.
What stared back at me was a skeleton, bleached and polished so that no trace of flesh remained. The gaping mouth grinned malice at me; from within the depths of those empty eye sockets, something glinted. The skeleton gave me no time to recover but lunged at me, moving faster in the fifty yards that separated us than it had when I had chased it.
I have, on more than one occasion, been described as being impossible to please, and The Bone Witch did make me worry that this criticism is, in fact, justified. In reviewing my last few YA fantasy reads, I’ve complained about the over-abundance of action at the expense of character development or backstory, finding myself exhausted by endless battles and chases. The Bone Witch takes entirely the opposite approach, with the first sign of a fight at the novel’s climax, and huge amounts of exposition before we get to this point. I feel like I know more about Tea’s wardrobe than I do about my own, for example, and there’s really a lot of talking throughout the book. Really, a lot. I enjoyed being given more information about the world Chupeco is putting together in this series-starter, and it meant the characters and their relationships are fully realized, which makes a really welcome change in this genre; I just wonder whether people could have started fighting monsters a bit sooner.
Dark asha are the grunts of the system. We do the most important work – raising and banishing daeva – but we rarely receive acclaim for it. We are more likely to be known for our mistakes than our successes.
The Bone Witch is certainly a welcome and intriguing addition to the YA fantasy genre; like an adult gothic novel in much of its imagery, yet firmly a teen story in terms of its protagonist, it should be an appealing prospect for the more macabre-minded reader. And, for that reader, I will give one final selling point for The Bone Witch; part of it takes place on a beach of skulls. A. Beach. Of. Skulls. I’m just going to drop the mic right here.