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Monday, September 22, 2014

GUEST REVIEW: California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout (Reviewed by A. E. Marling)

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OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:Psst! We’re planning a heist on the Ossuary, a vault of priceless dinosaur and dragon bones pulsing with magic. You in or you out?”

You had me at ‘Ossuary.’”

Nibble on kraken cartilage and possess the power of the typhoon. Gnaw on mastodon knuckles and gain gargantuan strength. Crunch on the porous wing bones of a griffin and leap into the air. Regenerate your dying friend with powdered hydra. Open secret ways with sphinx-tooth lock picks. A fossilized banquet of magic has bubbled up in the La Brea Tar Pits of California.

In the LA noir fantasy California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout, the Golden State has seceded from the nation thanks to the earthshaking powers of the Hierarch. He now rules the kingdom of Southern California. His nobles include Baron Chandler, Disney the Glamour Mage, and Mulholland the Water Mage.

In part because I live in the bellybutton of California, I loved the local references, such as the Battle of Santa Barbara. More than that, the setting is a delight, with Beverley Hills as the kingdom’s Golden City. Jade teeth veneers are coming into fashion, in part to cover the dental discoloring from magic absorbing into the skeletons of the osteomancers.

Daniel inherited his osteomancy from his father. That and his enemies. His father crafted Daniel the Vorpal Sword using his baby teeth. The Hierarch stole the sword after eating the bones of Daniel’s murdered father. Daniel now must recover his blade from the most secure vault in the kingdom, the Ossuary.

Every respectable heist needs a team of mavericks incapable of working together. I regret to say that Daniel’s associates are a little too trustworthy for my tastes. One regenerating hulk, one sharpshooting ex-lover, one shapeshifter, all are devoted to Daniel. Even the inside woman, the traitor who helps them plan the scheme, integrates with the rest of the friends with minimal fuss, though Daniel can’t be certain of her motivations. And, oh boy, are they interesting. The heist itself was everything I hoped for. The infiltrators must solve a sphinx’s riddle then brave the waterways under Hollywood guarded by lurking monstrosities. Daniel must face an enemy osteomancer who’s nearing magic feels like “a mass of roiling dragon and thundering mammoth herds.”

In the city’s more upright channels, Investigator Gabriel is searching for unauthorized osteomancers, such as Daniel. Gabriel hates the insipid schmoozing required to get ahead in Los Angeles. If only people could be silent together at parties. Gabriel believes in hard work and good bureaucracy. He also has a soft spot for hounds. That’s the name given to people with a gift for sniffing out magic. These “hounds” are enslaved and kept in kennels. Gabriel picks one about to be put down. The hound’s name is Max, and Gabriel lets the man walk around without a collar. The two form a friendship and begin tracking Daniel even as he pursues vengeance against the Hierarch.

California Bones is a short novel with a light plot, more of an ulna bone than a femur. The ending did not thrill me in terms of pacing, and the protagonist’s victory struck me as too easy. His character change seemed unsupported. That said, the heroes of pulp fiction rarely change at all, and this fun story tips its fedora to that genre. I smiled at many of the book’s lines, such as the description of a man who had “a confidence that must’ve required dance lessons.”

CONCLUSION: The last thing I should mention is that mages are often on the menu. The feast description doesn't reach G.R.R.M. levels, but a little cannibalism goes a long way. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to blend a blueberry smoothie with the fossilized tooth of a megalodon shark. Then I’ll swim out of San Francisco Bay and into the sunset.

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: A.E. Marling is a fantasy writer, dancer, law-abiding citizen, human being (in that order). Discover his fantasy-appreciation blog and follow him on Twitter, @AEMarling, or the kitty gets it.


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