Magic In Iron and Bone In Nicki Pau Preto’s Bonesmith

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Magic In Iron and Bone In Nicki Pau Preto’s Bonesmith

Readers familiar with Nicki Pau Preto’s Crown of Feathers trilogy might be surprised to find that the cover for her new novel, Bonesmith, is dominated by black and white tones, with green spirits looming behind. But for Pau Preto’s brand new world, the monochrome hues make sense. The Dominions are a cold land, where magic is drawn from the materials of the land itself—including the bones of those who died there. 

Wren is among the best of the young bonesmiths training to serve as valkyr, the warriors who defend reapyrs who send the spirits of the dead to their afterlives. It’s too bad that someone’s out to make sure she fails. Ousted from the bonesmith hierarchy after “failing” her career-breaking test, Wren is sent into exile, to serve in a fort on the edge of the Dominion lands. There, the Wall separates civilization from the Breachlands, a territory overrun by undead, where Wren’s lauded uncle, the former heir to the House of Bone, fell in battle.

But as Wren takes on her position at the fort, becoming friends with the Dominion prince, she begins to realize that the history she’s always been told has left out some very important details. When Prince Leo is kidnapped by a team that includes a supposedly-extinct ironsmith, Wren’s determined to go after him, saving him and restoring her honor. But the ironsmith, Julian, becomes her only ally across the Wall, and the truths taught in the Breachlands don’t match up with Wren’s understanding of the world. To survive, she has to trust a hated enemy—and confront evidence that her own House’s stakes in the world are very different than anyone ever realized.

Though the atmosphere is black and white—black represents iron magic and white, bone—the moral complications are anything but. Pau Preto does a fantastic job building a growing sense of unease as secret after secret is uncovered. She manages this despite her brash and prickly point of view character—who looms gloriously large over the narrative, her arrogance never fully checked, even when her ego is bruised. In a chat with Paste about the book, Pau Preto confesses, “I definitely knew Wren would be polarizing, but I also think there’s something so authentic about her that I find incredibly appealing.” 

Despite her big personality, Pau Preto never had a problem wrangling Wren in the narration. “I think it’s because she has such strongly defined goals and motivations, she knows who she is (or thinks she does anyway) and what she wants,” she says. “I never had to waffle over what she’d do, because it always felt very clear to me—but that was thanks to the work I did up front.”

Pau Preto was surprised by the chemistry that Wren instantly had with Prince Leo—not necessarily the romantic kind (although perhaps readers have yet to see where that might go), but definitely in their instant friendship. Both Wren and Leo are natural born troublemakers, ready to push boundaries to see what they can accomplish. Leo’s shallow exterior belies clever inner manipulations, as Leo, also a goldsmith, turns difficult situations from lead into gold. Because so much of the narration is tight to Wren’s perspective, readers only get glimpses into Leo’s thoughts, but those small hints flesh out the book far beyond what a first person narrative would have allowed.

“My previous series was also third-person, but it featured alternating point-of-view chapters, with up to six POV characters by the end of the trilogy,” Pau Preto says. “It makes for sprawling storytelling, but you do lose time with your main character, and it can really slow the pacing. So I knew from the jump that I wanted Bonesmith to be more streamlined and intimate, but of course, there are some things that you can’t really achieve if you stick to a single narrator. Not only does switching POVs allow the reader to see certain people and places first-hand, enriching the story, it also helps me get to know my characters better.”

That shift in narration also gives readers clues about the motives of various parties, which Wren has to figure out on her own. But while Pau Preto knows the truths behind the politics of the various Houses (she’s a plotter, not a panster), thus far, the point of view characters are in the dark almost as much as the readers. It means that readers get to spend time absorbing the setting and its magic through their perspectives.

And the magic is very much worth absorbing. 

The world features distinct color schemes for each House—Pau Preto was previously a graphic designer before becoming an author, and that touch is clear in the atmospheric focus. But the color use here is also something Pau Preto used to distinguish groups and alliances. 

“I think there’s this base desire a lot of us have to be a part of a group or classify ourselves according to our skills, passions, or personality traits,” she says, referencing fantasies like Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, where specific groups wear colors or fly distinct banners. “I was definitely borrowing from those traditions when I was thinking of the smithing houses and their related colors and imagery. It was certainly a deliberate choice, and something I tried to carry through—from the color of a character’s eyes to the armor and weaponry.”

The magic itself also leans into the hues, much like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was also an inspiration. “I loved the idea of using metal, and I played with other naturally occurring materials that come from the ground, like stone and wood,” she explains. “But it wasn’t until I thought of using bone as a material—and what that would entail—that the world and the magic system really started to take shape.”

It’s not just bone, but also the spirits that can be smithed. Ghostsmiths are also—supposedly—extinct, but the villains loom large over the narrative. They’re the ones that created the undead horde populating the Breachlands in the first place. The idea of smiths that can command spirits themselves adds a deliciously creepy undertone to places already populated with revenants and other undead, sure to appeal to fans of the “Locked Tomb” series by Tamsyn Muir or C.S.E. Cooney’s Saint Death’s Daughter. And, like everything else but the cover of the novel, answers about the ghostsmiths’ necromancy also aren’t black and white. Instead, Pau Preto has created a world in glorious shades of gray, with a kickass heroine, an earnest rival (to lover?) who’s easy to adore, and a shining conniving prince, who readers will be anxious to follow into the final book in the duology, which debuts next summer.

In the meantime, Bonesmith is a fantastically chilly beach read for an overly hot summer day, and available now wherever books are sold. 

Alana Joli Abbott is a reviewer and game writer, whose multiple-choice novels, including Choice of the Pirate and Blackstone Academy for Magical Beginners, are published by Choice of Games. She is the author of three novels, several short stories, and many role-playing game supplements. She also edits fantasy anthologies for Outland Entertainment, including Bridge to Elsewhere and Never Too Old to Save the World. You can find her online at

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