Two debut fantasy novels, Lisbeth Campbell’s The Vanished Queen and Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter, bring their rebellion plots down to earth with exemplary grace and skill as their complex female protagonists square up against wicked, corrupt kings.
Stewart’s chief protagonist, Lin, is a princess living under the dual weights of her father’s disapproval and the moral depravity of the necromantic magics he wields to maintain his kingdom. She is joined by Jovis, a smuggler dragged unwillingly into a struggle far grander than running an imperial blockade. Their journeys, both together and apart, are set in a Polynesian-inspired world reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea.
Campbell focuses on Anza, a young student with a fondness for mischief who is drawn into a resistance movement after she accidentally discovers the diary of her country’s missing queen in a forbidden section of her school’s library, and Esvar, a prince waiting for his manipulative father to die so his older brother can inherit the throne of Karegg. Campbell's story is devoid of magic, but studded with gunpowder and machinery, rendering it more a piece of vaguely steampunk, central European-inspired historical fiction than archipelagic high fantasy.
The absence of the supernatural feels as natural and necessary in Campbell’s world as its omnipresence does in Stewart’s. However, these differences seem more aesthetic than fundamental; they are more relevant to how the story is told than the underlying nature of each story itself. In some ways, although both books are clearly and resolutely fantasy stories, they incorporate aspects of world building more common to science fiction. Both worlds are familiar, with clear allusions to recognizable cultures and history. Even Stewart’s bone magic is designed to follow rules, much like a natural force that can be manipulated, rather than offering a route around them as in much contemporary fantasy. These constraints lend both The Vanished Queen and The Bone Shard Daughter the cohesiveness and believability so treasured in dark fantasy, but without requiring the gritty aesthetic characteristic of writers like Erikson and Abercrombie. Instead, they demonstrate the rare combination of conceptual clarity and narrative drive that characterizes peers such as Catherine Rowland and W.M. Akers.
If their debuts are any indication, both Lisbeth Campbell and Andrea Stewart should be mainstays of modern fantasy writing for years to come. Perhaps Stewart will answer some of the tantalizing unanswered questions from The Bone Shard Daughter. Perhaps Campbell will explore the world of The Vanished Queen beyond the evocatively claustrophobic borders of Karegg. Or perhaps not. Either way, they are both welcome and timely additions to the pantheon of modern fantasy.