When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.
When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.
Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch’s storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian’s sword, an object of untold power.
My first encounter with Greg van Eekhout was a less than satisfactory read of his earlier urban fantasy novel Norse Code, so going into another somewhat-off-the-beaten-track, alternate-Earth urban fantasy, I was somewhat dubious. California Bones proved itself a whole different novel, though, & van Eekhout has learned from many of the problems of Norse Code.
Norse Code‘s great strength was its characters, a saving grace in a generally mediocre book. California Bones replicates that deft handling of character, and improves on areas that were slightly slipshod; van Eekhout’s handling of character development, especially that of the protagonist Daniel, is assured and very slick, as frustration with his failure to realise crucial things rebounds only onto the character, the author himself making it actually believable that these clues would be missed. Indeed, this excellent handling of character applies to the very different other point of view character, the staid bureaucrat Gabriel; chapters from the perspetives of the two read very differently, meaning California Bones doesn’t settle into a single style and stay there. Whilst I don’t believe the novel manages to pass the Bechdel Test, there is a broad cast including a number of interesting female characters with agency of their own; while secondary, they are all crucial to the novel and fascinating in their own right, especially Emma.
van Eekhout does have one consistent stylistic note in California Bones, and that’s humour. Despite writing a grim, creepy, strange and rather dark heist novel, there’s still humour thrown in; jokes between characters (especially to alleviate stress), narratorial jests, and little things dropped for perceptive readers with the right frame of mind to smile at. It’s a combination that draws you on through the book as it powers its way towards a grand finale that is as well-written as it is inevitable. Sadly, that doesn’t mean the novel completely avoids falling into the trap of uneven pacing; sections of slow prose towards the end really bring the reader to a bit of a screeching halt, but the way California Bones keeps its pace on a general upward trend from its opening pages, revealing things at its own slow rate as we build a cast and a plot, is brilliant.
The setting is the unique selling point of this novel. Like Norse Code, it is an alternate America; in California Bones, however, it’s an America where both North and South California have become independent states, often warring with each other, fending off the greater United States of America through the power of osteomancy: consuming bones and the powers of the beings they came from. This magic has all sorts of repercussions, from cannibalism through to a terrifying concentration of power and a horrific method of prolonging it. van Eekhout takes elements of the real world – Disney, for instance – and views them through the lens of osteomancy to come out with some truly terrifying, grim, strange visions; I can’t be sure whether to congratulate or be scared of the mind that came up with some of these ideas.
California Bones has a relatively simple, straightforward and traditional plot, but by setting it in such an untraditional world van Eekhout raises the potential of the novel enormously, and the reader’s engagement is paid off with fun writing and great characters. Well worth a read.
DoI: Review based on a complimentary ARC. California Bones comes out in the US (and UK?) on the 10th of June.