Thursday, June 26, 2014

California Bones, by Greg van Eekhout

Daniel Blackland is an osteomancer, able to absorb and wield magic by consuming the bones of magical creatures. But this gift is a bit of a drag, because it's an osteomancer-eat-osteomancer world out there - eat the bones of an osteomancer, and you absorb all the magic that they absorbed in their lifetime, which means that powerful osteomancers need to constantly watch their back for all the people looking to eat them and steal their power. Daniel should know. As a young boy he watched his dad get eaten by the tyrannical Hierarch of the independent nation of Southern California. 

Since then, he's been on the run. Ten years later he's living underground and organizing heists with his motley crew of buddies magical and mundane. People like Moth, whose healing powers allow him to regrow kidneys (and come back from the dead), and shape-shifter Jo, and Cassandra, his ex, who is good at lots of things, and who he maybe, kind of, sort of, still has feelings for.

As the son of a famous enemy of the Hierarch, keeping his head down has been a matter of life and death. And when he gets the opportunity to invade the Hierarch's own personal bone stash, where enough magical artifacts are stored up to make him a wealthy man many times over, he knows he shouldn't do it. Nothing about this job feels right, but it's also an opportunity to settle an old score, and he takes it anyway. And shenanigans ensue. There are betrayals, reversals, surprises, and several truly awesome deployments of radical crazy wacky magic. 

[Minor quibble: much of the book is focused on Daniel's determination to reclaim the magic sword his father made, endowed with pieces of Daniel, that will allow the Hierarch to control Daniel and his formidable magic. Once we finally find it, the pay-off for this sword is pretty minimal. I get that sometimes a sword is just a sword, and a symbol of the bond between father and son is just a symbol, but the narrative has written a check that the sword can't cash, and it feels anti-climactic... although the climax as a whole is big and complicated and the overall impression is very satisfying.] 

I knew of Greg van Eekhout as a writer of wonderful young adult and middle grade novels, and I decided to review this book for Guys Lit Wire because I thought it was YA. Spoiler alert: it's not. There are a couple scenes of intense violence, including one particularly horrific one near the start. So recommend with care, particularly to younger readers. But for boys looking beyond the YA section who can handle some more mature content, California Bones is an excellent choice. 

Because for all its blood and curses, California Bones has the heart of a YA novel. THIS IS A VERY GOOD THING. It has the fast pace and hyper-focused plot, the protagonist struggling with what kind of person he wants to become. Daniel is in his twenties, but his dilemmas are that of a YA protagonist - he loves his friends and wants to protect them; he rejects the pressure to "grow up" and get a legit job; he grapples with the unwanted responsibilities his father foisted upon him. That's part of the real magic flowing through this story of warring magic systems. 

Is it wrong that I loved this book because it confirmed my suspicions that Los Angeles is a terrible place of evil and atrocity? I mean, I loved it for a bunch of reasons, but one of them is how well it takes the city as I've experienced it in my limited time there, a humid swamp of snarled traffic and tar stink and human desperation, and transforms them into a steaming magic world of mammoth tusks and dragon scales and dictatorship and hipster coffee shops.

Like the movie Chinatown (or its remake, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), this is a mythic Los Angeles, one where human greed and fear and hate bring the landscape to life. California Bones is an achievement of atmosphere, of place and setting, as well as worldbuilding and magic-system-making. Human characters don't stand much of a chance in a world so foul and fraught, but it sure is fun watching them try. 

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