Review: CALIFORNIA BONES – Greg van Eekhout
Compelling. This is the best word with which to describe this book, one of the titles that came to my attention through mention from other fellow bloggers. First there is a totally new kind of magic coming into play: osteomancy, i.e. the ability to acquire a creature’s powers through the ingestion of its bones. Then there is the fascinating background of an alternate contemporary Earth where magic rules and where things are both familiar and strange: the action happens in a very different Los Angeles from the one we know, a city whose intense traffic flows on waterways rather than highways, where the state of California is split into two separate and competing realms, the southern one belonging to the ruthless Hierarch, old and powerful. And last but not least, all the creatures that used to dwell only in fantasy settings – like fire-dragons, hyppogrifs and every other chimeric combination one could think of – are real, or at least were, since only their bones remain, as very sought after implements of magic.
Our first encounter with the book’s protagonist, Daniel Blackland, occurs on a beach where he discovers, as a child, a kraken spine: his father, a formidable osteomancer training his son to follow in his footsteps, makes Daniel ingest part of the bone and the child feels the change coming over him – the strength, the power, the difference. Sebastian Blackland is both training and enhancing his son, adding magic layers to Daniel’s physiology to prepare him for the future: unfortunately the man is killed – in a most horrible way – in one of the Hierarch’s periodic purges, leaving the child alone and somewhat unfinished, forced to find his way through life as best as he can. Grown-up Daniel survives as a thief and con-man in the city’s underbelly, balancing his magic abilities with the need to keep a low profile under the constant scrutiny of the Hierarch’s police: it’s a good life, sort of, brightened by steady friends and people he trusts, until he’s offered the chance of recovering an important artifact from the Ossuary, the Hierarch’s depository of bones, the best-guarded place in Southern California.
Until that moment, Daniel has more or less accepted his life of hidden safety, but it’s clear he harbors a strong, if repressed, undercurrent of unfulfilled desire for revenge, the desire to face the old man who killed and consumed his father, to finally face his fears and stop hiding, so that the temptation is too great to resist despite the inherent danger, both to himself and his friends. The preparation and execution of this almost impossible heist take up most of the story, keeping tension at high levels and at the same time fleshing out both Daniel and his friends and co-conspirators. With the exception of Cassandra, who is a skilled lock-picker but possesses no peculiar abilities, the others show how magic can change a person in unexpected directions: Jo, for example, is a shape-shifter and can take on the appearance of anyone she wishes; Moth, a big, strong guy, can heal any kind of injury on his own, and even come back from death, as we see happening more than once in the course of the daring operation. And then there is Emma, the inside woman, the fifth column from the heart of the Hierarch’s stronghold: a mysterious figure whose goals will become clear as the story unfolds and who is indeed a master of deception and misinformation, on many levels.
There’s another narrative thread, running in parallel with that of the heist, following Gabriel Argent, a minor functionary who’s also related to the Hierarch but, like Daniel, fears and loathes him since the old ruler killed Gabriel’s mother just as cruelly as he did Daniel’s father. Like the other man, Gabriel tries to blend into the background, until something convinces him otherwise. It’s interesting to see how both their lives have been running on similar tracks – even though in very different circles – and how they both find the will to go against the system: in Gabriel’s case, the first step comes with Max, a human enslaved and trained as a hound and treated as such – another of the chilling elements of this dreary alternate world.
One of the most fascinating details of this mesmerizing story are the cameo roles of well-known figures, like William Mulholland, the creator of Southern California’s waterways, or Walt Disney who, unlike the real-life person, is a nasty, jaded creature who loves to inspire terror and inflict pain. Both of them have grown preternaturally old thanks to magic and they add to the overall flavor of this world where corruption and brutality hold sway. The feeling is so powerful that my mind created an image of this place in sepia tones, quite the opposite of the usual visions of sunny California: the storytelling is indeed powerful in this way, because it manages to twist a well-established vision in a quite effortless way.
There are however some… imperfections in this well-crafted story: the ending and the resolution seem to come a little too quickly, at least when compared with the build-up of tension. And then there’s the use of osteomancy itself: at times it takes the role of deus-ex-machina, making the characters – and especially Daniel – far too powerful, and taking away some of the sense of impending danger that had been built up until that point. In other words, what would be the use of a treacherous opponent, if all one has to do is summon the powers of a long-dead creature to beat him?
Nonetheless, California Bones is a quick, absorbing read, and I highly recommend it if you want to explore a new take on the tropes of urban fantasy.
My Rating: 7,5/10