Amanda Downum's sequel to The Drowning City and the second book in the Necromancer Chronicles, The Bone Palace fast-forwards in time and moves the setting to necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur's home city of Erisín. Isyllt is an agent of the crown who is called in to use her magic to investigate suspicious deaths, in this case of a prostitute who has some connection to the vampires that live beneath the city streets. The plot thickens as she discovers the dead girl possesses jewelry belonging to the late queen, whose death from fever caused the continuing rift between Isyllt and her mentor (and former lover), Kiril. In a parallel plot, the prince's mistress Savedra works to protect him and his wife Ashlin from assassination attempts. Savedra is "hijra," a transwoman who is a strong and deeply sympathetic character. While Isyllt begins to suspect the involvement of blood magic and becomes increasingly torn between her loyalty to Kiril and to the crown, Savedra's identity as "other" leads her to an emotional tangle with the prince and Ashlin as she researches a dark secret from the kingdom's past. When their paths intersect with a vengeful demon, no one is safe--not even the king himself.
Tangled plot threads (I had trouble figuring out what and how much to say in my summary) and a slow start threaten to bog down this otherwise enjoyable novel, but in the end, it's worth reading because there just aren't that many books out there, fantasy or otherwise, featuring well-drawn transgendered main characters. Savedra is, in a lot of ways, more likable and intriguing than Isyllt herself, making me sad to leave Erisín behind with Isyllt's departure at the book's close. At least the next book will still have a trans character in Isyllt's new apprentice.
In Brit Mandelo's great review, she points out that Downum's book is not only home to complex queer characters, it's chock full of female characters in general. Unlike many contemporary (and most old school) fantasies, it definitely passes the Bechdel Test and so, despite its flaws, I will definitely be picking up the next book in the series.
The vampires in The Bone Palace are decidedly not sexy, but Isyllt gets sexually involved with one anyway, which ends up biting her (heh) in the ass. Much of what she does seems to have that effect, leaving her physically and emotionally exhausted by the end of every book. Nevertheless, it was refreshing that the vampires were ugly and creepy, yet also interested in having rights like daylight people.
The idea of immigrants and their patterns of settlement through the city was also well thought-out, giving Erisín more realism as a setting. This is the second time that Downum has created a fascinating and distinct setting in a novel, only to move on at the end of the book to uncharted territory. Will Isyllt ever return to these places?
There was so much buildup about the Bone Palace itself as a place where the residue of a magical maelstrom still echoes, that I thought that the location would figure more significantly in the book's denouement.
I like that the main characters got to wear pretty dresses and go to a fancy court party. I had this same reaction to the dressing-up bits of Mistborn, as I recall, I think because it provides a fun contrast to the gritty reality of corpses and assassination attempts. Maybe it's the Regency romance novel reader in me.
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