BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Psychic killers stalk the landscape of Earth after a nuclear apocalypse in which hoodoo and the tarot are the dominant belief system.
PROS: Clever integration of the tarot; intriguing look at identity; fast pace.
CONS: Simple worldbuilding, significant philosophical bent; jolting chapter transitions.
BOTTOM LINE: Bone Dance is an appealing, well-written, and thoughtful story, but is best suited to readers of a philosophical nature or reading temperament.
Psychic killers stalk the landscape of Earth after a nuclear apocalypse in Emma Bull’s Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominated Bone Dance. Bull crafts a strange yet compelling story of identity and prophecy by basing the story on the ancient tradition of African folk magic known as hoodoo and the still widely practiced oracle of the tarot.
The story follows Sparrow, an expert in the finding and preservation of music and video technology from before the apocalypse. Sparrow’s gift for finding things leads to work for A. A. Albrecht, the man who controls access to all electrical power for the city in which Sparrow lives. Albrecht wants a copy of an old B-movie, a work which predicted the rise of the Horsemen, a group of psychic men and women, commissioned by the former government to enslave the minds of South American dictators. But the Horsemen went rogue, and it is their fault that the button was pushed on Armageddon. Sparrow’s search for the movie leads to a real life confrontation with a Horseman, and the result will leave the City and Sparrow completely changed.
Bone Dance has been called a “techno-fantasy”, a work of science fiction that has many fantastic or spiritual elements in it. In this case, the fantasy element is the power of the tarot and hoodoo. In the world of Bone Dance, these things have real power, even over a non-believer like Sparrow. Bull has chosen to open each chapter with some text from the tarot, giving a glimpse of what is to come, in one sense prophesying the events that will unfold. It is worth the effort to go back and look at the chapter title page after reading it to see how subtly Bull weaves the tarot system into the story.
But the real meat of the narrative is Sparrow. The story is told entirely from the first person perspective of Sparrow. This is important to note, because there are times when Sparrow blacks out, and Bull is careful not to relate any of the events that happen during such times, nor does she do “info-dumps” to bring the reader up to speed. Some readers may dislike this aspect of the story, as this means that it is not always clear what happened during Sparrow’s blackout, and much of the answer can only come from inference in the dialogue, or Sparrow’s own inferences as related in the text. On occasion, as I read, I did find this a bit jarring and even annoying, but one must admit that Bull is being consistent with the memoir style of writing. What Sparrow does not experience or know, the reader does not.
These black outs are a key part of the story, and have a lot to do with Sparrow’s finding of identity. That identity is closely intertwined with the Horsemen, and knowing who they are leads Sparrow the self-discovery that is the primary motivator of the novel.
The story never lacks for action though. Sparrow is often on the run, both alone and with others. There are gun fights and chase scenes to keep the narrative animated.
The apocalyptic city in which most of the story is set is bleak at times. Most people must fend for themselves, and it is only through barter of goods or services that citizens eke out a meager living. It reflects the very real situation of many people in third-world countries today. But there are bright spots as well, as when Sparrow is cared for by a community of farmers outside the city, and when one character finds redemption from past misdeeds.
Bull’s Bone Dance is a science fiction story that maintains a sense of the spiritual. It is not religious, but it is able to acknowledge that there is more to the world than science alone allows. It is a candid look at the nature of identity, both in the character of Sparrow and the Horsemen. Bull uses the story to attempt to understand the mind/body/spirit divide. Emma Bull is a skilled writer, but this is no action-adventure tale, and not for someone looking for lighthearted entertainment. Bone Dance is an appealing, well-written, and thoughtful story, but is best suited to readers of a philosophical nature or reading temperament.