The theme of necromancy fascinates me. It got me to read the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton. The necromancy concept was never really developed in those books, and Hamilton wandered away from it. This resulted in my wandering away from the series.
I've seen some stories of necromancers as ceremonial magicians who draw a protective magical circle and summon the spirits of the dead into that circle. A cautious attitude is wise when you don't know the spirit you're summoning. Yet what about the beloved dead?
When I read in the description of YA fantasy The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco that twelve year old protagonist Tea refused to accept the death of her brother and ended up resurrecting him, I was intrigued. I also loved the cover. So I requested an ARC from Net Galley, and am now posting this honest review.
Chupeco doesn't spend nearly enough time on necromancy, but she does eventually show us how a deliberate act of necromancy works in her universe. It's a dark approach, but it's based on ancient beliefs about the nature of life and death. I thought it was an excellent concept.
On the other hand, this is what is now called an epic fantasy. This means that it takes place in a universe imagined by the author as opposed to urban fantasy whose setting is in a contemporary urban context, or historical fantasy which deals with a specific time and place in our past. I always hope that an epic fantasy will be less derivative than they usually are, and I'm always disappointed. This is why I read so little epic fantasy.
This book pulls background from a bestselling historical novel, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I wondered if this was originally supposed to be historical fantasy. I also imagine that Chupeco considered the borrowed background a selling point. She thought that the fans of Memoirs of a Geisha would buy the book. I am not one of those fans. I read Geisha: A Life by Mineko Iwasaki. Iwasaki was the geisha that Arthur Golden interviewed when he was writing his book. She considered the novel a misrepresentation. I urge people who want to know the truth about geisha to read Iwasaki's memoir.
From a feminist viewpoint, the idea that women who have magical gifts that could potentially transform their world for the better should spend a great deal of their time entertaining wealthy and powerful men is repulsive. It nevertheless makes sense in the patriarchal context that Chupeco is portraying. This practice provides these pseudo-geisha with important connections, but it also defuses the fear of strong women by making them seem harmless. Since Tea turns out to be far too much of a powerhouse to be confined to the traditional geisha role, this strategy completely fails to render her unintimidating.
My favorite character in this novel is a boy whose nature and talents cause him to rebel against established gender roles. His name is Likh. He has magical abilities. In this society, he would be required to join a special force of male magical adepts who are deployed militarily. Yet Likh is a gentle soul who is unsuited to the military. He is also a graceful dancer. This would qualify him to be a pseudo-geisha, but males aren't permitted to assume this role. I wanted this book to be about Likh's conflict with his society, but he was a minor character who didn't get enough space in the narrative to suit me.
Another important bone that I would like to pick with The Bone Witch is that I feel that it ended up reinforcing stereotypes about necromancers. It seems to me that magic is a tool. Whether it's good or evil depends on the ethical compass of the practitioner. If someone's magical abilities are particularly potent, it is much more incumbent upon that individual to consider the consequences of every magical act.
I also think that a character who isn't introspective or ambivalent about his or her decisions, isn't very interesting. Perhaps the YA genre doesn't really accommodate the maturity that I wanted to see in Tea, but I was a reflective teenager myself. This is probably why I believe that she fell short, and that The Bone Witch became less worthwhile as a result.