As a book blogger, sometimes I get so busy reading review titles and new releases that I end up missing out on a lot previously published books, so one of my goals for this year is to take more time to catch up with the backlist, especially in my personal reading pile. And it seems I’m not the only one! Backlist Burndown is a new meme started by Lisa of Tenacious Reader. Every last Friday of the month, she’ll be posting a review of a backlist book and is inviting anyone interested to do the same. Of course, you can also review backlist books any day you want, as often you want, but be sure to watch for her post at the end of the month to link up!
For this month’s Backlist Burndown, I’m reviewing…
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Dystopia
Series: Book 1 of Daniel Blackland
Publisher: Tor (June 10, 2014)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Have I mentioned how much I love a good heist? I definitely would have jumped on this book a lot sooner had known the treat I was in for. But there’s also a lot more to California Bones aside from being the ultimate fantasy crime caper novel. Author Greg Van Eekhout also wraps it all up in a cool package featuring some amazing magic, setting his story up in a savage dystopian world.
The magic system is based on osteomancy, the drawing of energy and power from the bones of humans, animals, and even mythical creatures. Fossilized remains of extinct animals are the rarest of all, worth vast fortunes on the black market. But the users of bone magic – called osteomancers – who can get their hands on them are capable of the most powerful spells. A chunk of sabertooth can grant great speed and agility; a bit of sint holo, the ability to turn invisible; some essence of firebird can allow the user to breathe flames; and so on.
The most straightforward way to extract magic from a piece bone is to consume it – literally. Our protagonist Daniel Blackland was only six when he ate his first bone fragment, a piece of kraken spine fed to him by his osteomancer father. Little did young Daniel know, Sebastian Blackland was already preparing his son for survival against his enemies. After the elder Blackland was murdered by the brutal Hierarch of the Kingdom of Southern California, Daniel is forced to go into hiding, eking out a living with petty thievery…until he and his friends are offered the job of a lifetime. The score? Caches of untold osteomantic treasures in the Heirarch’s heavily guarded storehouse, including a magical sword that holds immense personal significance for Daniel.
So yes, California Bones has everything I want in a heist novel: a diverse crew with each member equipped with specific, specialized talents? Check. High stakes? Check. Innovative solutions to get around alarm systems, physical barriers and other security measures? Check. And last but most importantly, lots of plot twists to set up an explosive final act. Double check. This book was plenty of fun to boot, with great characters and great dialogue infused with plenty of humor. But that’s also counterbalanced with some pretty dark, nasty stuff. I mean, we have cannibalism and examples of human beings butchering other human beings to ingest the magic in their flesh and bones. An interesting idea, but also icky and horrible.
Van Eekhout also makes his novel special by setting it in a version of Los Angeles where we have canals and waterways instead of streets, and everyone gets around in boats and barges. The world of this alternate southern California is revealed gradually, letting the mystique of it filter through to us little by little. For example, the Hierarch’s allies include historical figures like Walt Disney, but instead of being the creator of cartoons beloved by children everywhere, this world’s Disney is an evil bastard whose corruption knows no bounds. The fossil record is also replete with all manner of legendary creatures, as varied and fantastical as any medieval bestiary. From phoenixes to venomous seps, you never know what you’ll be exposed to next.
That said, there are a few things that didn’t fully work for me. I mentioned earlier that I like heist stories, mainly because I enjoy reading about the entire process of theft, from planning to execution. There’s a lot of problem solving involved for the characters, learning the layout of the location to be robbed, figuring out the best way past seemingly insurmountable defenses, etc. Hence in a way, the richness of the magic system in this book is both a positive and a negative. What happens when there are a countless number of creature bones that can endow an osteomancer with a countless number of abilities? Well, that means no barrier is impossible. Granted, there are a lot of neat problems that the thieves in the novel have to overcome, and plenty of awesome ideas. But still, I knew that anything the author could throw at our characters, there’s bound to be some sort of magical solution. It takes a lot of the challenge and excitement out of the heist, as a result.
The second half of the novel also doesn’t read as smoothly as the first half. This might be due to the shift in story focus, because the plot does progress from the heist to something much bigger by the end. The climax and conclusion felt a bit rushed, and I can’t really put my finger on why, but the characters didn’t feel as natural or fleshed out either. All told, however, I want to stress that these are rather minor quibbles in the greater scheme of things.
In the end, I thought California Bones was a great book and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. This is a fun, inventive and very clever series that holds lots of potential, and by all accounts the second book is already living up to expectations. I’m definitely going to make the effort soon to tackle the sequel Pacific Fire so I’ll be all caught up, because I hear there is already a book three (Dragon Coast) on the horizon.