Review: PACIFIC FIRE by Greg Van Eekhout (Daniel Blackland #2)
The first volume in this series, California Bones, caught my attention for its more than unique approach to magic, but this second installment transformed me into a staunch fan. Even though Daniel Blackland remains in the foreground, this book focuses most of its attention on his adopted son Sam, the golem of Southern California’s Hierarch, blending the heist trope with a coming-of-age story in a seamless, delightfully riveting way.
The book starts in the immediate aftermath of Daniel’s defeat of the old Hierarch, as the young osteomancer and thief goes into hiding to protect child Sam from the greed of all those who would not hesitate to kill him in order to consume the old, powerful magic contained in the golem’s body. We then flash-forward ten years into the future, with Sam a teenager starting to feel the weight of a life on the run, without the possibility to put down roots and have a normal life, one that does not require constantly watching over one’s shoulder.
Southern California is not a better place after the Hierarch’s disappearance, because the power vacuum gave a few strong players the chance to step in and establish a power base: one of them is shifty Otis Roth, the same one who sent Daniel Blackland to the Hierarch’s stronghold in Book 1. Otis is determined to create a triumvirate with Sister Tooth, a powerful osteomancer, and Gabriel Argent, the former Hierarch’s relative and the ruling water-mage, controller of the mandala-shaped waterways that are Los Angeles’ circulatory system. To reach such goal, Otis means to osteomantically resurrect a Fire Drake, a dangerous creature that will ensure Otis and his cohorts the means for total control, but Argent – whose power has not greatly undermined his intrinsic decency – contacts Daniel urging him to stop the plot by killing the dragon, and Daniel feels morally obligated to remove what he considers a weapon of mass destruction from the equation.
He’s poisoned on his way to Los Angeles, though, and while he’s incapacitated Sam decides to shoulder the burden and try to finish the task, despite the mission’s inherent dangers and the constant risk of being recognized and harvested for the magic in his bones. Here is where the true story starts, with Sam’s choice to finish the task Daniel started and at the same time find the freedom he’s always been denied, defying the restrictions that have shaped his life until that moment. He’s not alone in this adventure: first he teams with Em, one of the many Emma golems already encountered in California Bones, and then with other characters he meets along the way. The young man revealed in the course of the adventure is a very likable person, one that’s easy to root for: like all teenagers he hungers for a different, better life, and he rebels against the impositions he had to struggle under until this moment, but at the same time he’s a detached observer, prone to keen and sarcastic comments about himself and his perceived shortcomings, so that he never comes across as snotty or abrasive.
Having a new character carry off this heist gave the author a fresh approach to the trope and the world he created, and Sam is a wonderful person to care about: in the first book, Daniel Blackland felt somewhat cold and distant, accepting the dangers and harm his friends were facing as part of the equation, as the unavoidable price to reach his goal; Sam, on the other hand, possesses a basic integrity that makes him suffer for any hurt inflicted on others in the course of his mission, whether it happens through his direct intervention or not. Sam’s empathy is what makes him stand out and in the end be his own person, and not an appendage of Daniel Blackland: he represents the distillate of Daniel’s best traits and the successful way in which he raised this boy who is the incarnation of a cruel enemy – if every father wants his son to be a better man than he ever was, and Blackland clearly wants that from his adopted charge, Sam fulfills and exceeds these expectations.
The greater part of Sam’s character growth, and definition, comes from the interaction with Em: another golem, like him, but one who did not live the same kind of sheltered and isolated life. She is a warrior in the truest sense of the word, her training and experiences making her appear far older than Sam is, but as the story goes on, the balance between the two of them evens out, helped in great part by the witty exchanges between them. This is another side of the novel I enjoyed enormously: it’s often difficult to offset drama with humor in a successful way, but the author accomplished it here though the humorous quips Sam and Em indulge in. More often than not it’s gallows humor of course, considering the chain of situations the two find themselves in, and yet they manage, even in the direst of circumstances, to find the right comment, the perfect combination of words to break the tension and let us know more about them.
Alongside the two true protagonists of this adventure moves a number of characters that are always well-defined, no matter how short their appearance on stage: from charter pilot Sofia Bautista and her family to the crazed guy raising “the Hierarch’s chickens” or the jaded ex-singer offering an easy friendship born of boredom, they all spring up from the pages in sharp focus. Bit players they might be, but they are never cardboard props, and this is one of the reasons for the sense of organic reality you can find in this novel. And of course there are a few welcome returns from the previous book: I already listed Gabriel Argent or Otis (well, he’s not so welcome, to say the truth…), but we also find lock-picker Cassandra and hard-to-kill Moth, my favorite from Daniel’s old team, and encounter a couple of very surprising figures from his past.
All of them move in a world where magic is everything, a cruel, pitiless world where the tiniest shreds of osteomancy a person possesses can be harvested for profit, the victims abducted, penned in and slaughtered like animals. A world where beauty can be destroyed in a puff of sorcery, or soar in terrifying power with the shape of a dragon. A world that seeps through your bones and settles there in osteomantic alchemy.
It will be thrilling to visit it again in the next book…