Death is no stranger in the city of Erisín– but some deaths attract more attention than others.
When a prostitute dies carrying a royal signet, Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and agent of the Crown, is called to investigate. Her search leads to desecrated tombs below the palace, and the lightless vaults of the vampiric vrykoloi deep beneath the city. But worse things than vampires are plotting in Erisín…
As a sorcerous plague sweeps the city and demons stalk the streets, Isyllt must decide who she’s prepared to betray, before the city built on bones falls into blood and fire.
The Bone Palace, follow-up to The Drowning City, sees Isyllt back in her home city of Erisín after the debacle of her last assignment; it also takes place three years after the first novel, meaning a whole new and different web of contacts has been built up.
It also means that we’re dropped into a completely different kind of plot. While The Drowning City was a sort of James Bond-style espionage thriller, The Bone Palace is rather closer to a whodunnit threaded through with a palace intrigue to put A Song of Ice and Fire to shame, although both of Downum’s novels are also shot through with some of the same themes and ideas. In this case the various plot threads, of murders, tomb robbings, and assassination plots all converge as the novel moves on, picking up pace as it goes; at times this can feel a little disjointed and choppy as different characters pursue different lines of enquiry at different paces, but it also has a sense of building to a grand climax which really is game-changing in a way many novels fail to achieve. The murder of a prostitute, robbing of the tomb of the queen, and standard palace politics all combine very well in Downum’s hands in that climax, brought together in a reasonable, believable way, different strands of the same plot; The Bone Palace achieves that complexity excellently.
It does this, at times, at the expense of an excellent cast, however. Downum has a large number of characters to maneuveur into place in The Bone Palace, and on the whole rises to the challenge; Isyllt remains brilliantly world-weary and distressed by the way she is buffetted around, dejected by Kiril’s rejection of her. The way that this clouds her judgement as a character and affects her across the novel is subtle and very well done, working very well; and Downum doesn’t show her as joyless, avoiding falling into the all-too-easy trap of a one-note character. Savedra is similarly well-written, although I’ll have more to say about her tomorrow; for now let’s just say that her transsexuality plays no more of a defining role in The Bone Palace than her family connections or her love of Nikos. Once we step outside this core pairing, though, characterisations falls off something of a cliff; Ashlin especially suffers from this, as we’re told on more than one occasion how complex she is without ever really seeing any of it, instead seeing someone who is basically purely impulsive, an underwhelming piece of writing. Nikos is similarly poorly written; with virtually only one characteristic, Downum has written the ultimate “sensitive male”, a dull, insipid character whose survival we care about only because of those it would impact upon, not on himself.
This is, to its credit, a very queer book, though. Again, the treatment of Savedra’s transsexuality will be discussed tomorrow, but The Bone Palace also includes an intersex woman, Dahlia, who resists the cultural imperative to become some kind of sacred prostitute (anyone who doesn’t fit into the binary in Erisin appears to be directed down this route, but the only ones who fit that refuse to). She’s well-drawn and the intersexuality is not emphasised, just simply a part of her motivation along with her low birth; Downum handles that very sensitively. Similarly, Downum includes a queer polyamorous relationship in the novel; The Bone Palace‘s central romantic relationship is such, in fact. It’s very well drawn, avoiding the usual pitfalls of expected-jealousy and similar, and is to be much applauded.
The Bone Palace gets a lot of things very right; it’s just unfortunate that some of the things more central to it as a novel fall by the wayside along the road…