by Greg van Eekhout
Cover Artist: Cliff Nielsen
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765328557
Date: 10 June 2014 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
In the kingdom of Southern California, the Hierarch rules with an iron fist, his rule cemented by his mastery of osteomancy. By consuming the bones of mammoths, sphinx, basilisk and other outlandish creatures, an osteomancer can gain the power of these creatures, creating earthquakes or throwing lightning. This power remains in their own bones, and the Hierarch is perfectly happy to devour the bones of osteomancer's who challenge him. This is the inventive, evocative setting of Greg Van Eekhout’s latest novel, California Bones, and intriguing urban fantasy tale that marries its original setting to a fast moving and engaging plot. A few missteps in the characterization and some lose ends in the ending mar the novel slightly, but it remains a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I was pleased to hear that there will be a sequel.
Our protagonist is Daniel Blackland. His father is a powerful osteomancer, who grooms Daniel to follow in his footsteps, fully aware of how dangerous it can be to be an osteomancer in the Hierarch's kingdom. As a teenager, Daniel watches the Hierarch kill his father, and Daniel himself is hunted for the magic in his bones. Daniel grows up to be a talented osteomancer and thief. He is recruited for a daring heist to rob the Hierarch's personal cache of bones, along with a hand picked team of thieves, many of whom have their own special talents. Moth, for instance, heals from almost any injury, even returning from death itself. The plot is classic heist story, complete with betrayals and reversals, but it becomes clear that Daniel is on an inexorable course for a magical confrontation with the Hierarch that he seems doomed to lose.
The plot is well done, but fairly familiar. Likewise, while the characters are entertaining, they tend towards stock characters, with Daniel himself being the most interesting. There is an interesting revelation of the nature of the relationship between Daniel and his friends part way through that could have shaken up the somewhat traditional character dynamics, but unfortunately not much is made of it. So, while the story is well told, what sets this novel apart is its wonderfully inventive setting.
Van Eekhout does an excellent job of making us imagine a whole society dependent on magic, for everything from medical care to security. For example, there are teams of specially trained soldiers fed on cereberus wolf skull to have inhuman strength and reflexes. However, bones are a scarce resource. The kingdom of Southern California is using up its supply of bones (mined from the La Brea tar pits), and has begun to cannibalize its own citizens for the magic in their bones. This makes the setting feel alien, while at the same time inviting reflection on our own reliance on non-renewable resources, and the cost in blood we pay to secure them.
If your looking for a well told fantasy heist story, or the setting sounds engaging, then I strongly recommend California Bones. The plot and characterization aren't quite as original as the setting, but the novel is perfect for some light reading, and I plan to check out the sequel when it comes out.