Ben Blattberg is a freelance writer currently living in Texas. He blogs about movies and story structure at incremental-catastrophe.blogspot.com and makes jokes on Twitter @inCatastrophe.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In a magical LA ruthlessly run by a cannibal magician, a thief with a magical talent gets caught up in a heist.
PROS: Fun world-building with some darkly vivid imagery, and a fast-moving caper plot that pulls readers along.
CONS: Some jarring plot shifts and murky character motivations.
BOTTOM LINE: I wouldn’t want to live in van Eekhout’s grim, magical LA, but it’s a fantastic place to visit; and despite a few hiccups, the book is a fun thrill-ride.
If you’ve ever been to sunny Los Angeles, you know that it’s a dread-laden city of madness, where the palm trees merely bide their time till they wake and push us all into the unforgiving Pacific. Or maybe that’s just me; maybe Los Angeles strikes you more as a city of pretty people cavorting in endless sunshine. Greg van Eekhout channels both versions of LA into his new novel, California Bones, an expansion of his earlier short fiction story “The Osteomancer’s Son“. Looked at one way, California Bones is a light-hearted epic heist story in a magical, alternate California; looked at another way, it’s a dystopian Grand Guignol about a decaying bureaucracy ruthlessly ruled by the biggest cannibal in town. Either way, it’s a fast-moving adventure with some heavy stakes, and only a few bumps along the way.
The big What-If of California Bones–what van Eekhout singles out for the elevator pitch for the book–is osteomancy, a magic system that revolves around the consumption of magical remains. Usually, osteomancers gain their limited powers by consuming the long-dead bones of mostly extinct animals, both mythological (dragons) and historical (the American lion). Though, in a pinch, the more recently dead remains of other osteomancers will do. We’re introduced to this amazing and slightly terrifying magic from the first scene, when a young Daniel Blackland drinks liquefied kraken spine, which imparts to him the kraken’s power.
…Which is our first hint that the Blacklands aren’t your average family. Daniel and his father Sebastian have a rare relation to these bones: most other people use up these resources to get immediate effects. Scrape your knee? Skip the Neosporin and use some hydra regenerative instead. By contrast the Blacklands can incorporate these powers into them. In short, thanks to a steady diet of magical bones prepared by his father, the adult Daniel has some neat magical abilities.
Daniel is also, thanks his lineage and that same diet of bones, a wanted man in the Southern Kingdom, living with the worry that men wearing the wings-and-tusks emblem will kick down his door and eat him–just as they did with his father when Daniel was only a boy. That probably doesn’t sound like the LA you know (I hope). While osteomancy might be the big What-If of California Bones, van Eekhout doesn’t say “yes, there’s magic, but nothing else has changed.” That big What-If has lots of baby What-Ifs running around, mixing the familiar with the strange, the historical with the magical. For me, this mix gives the world a realistic, squint-and-you-can-just-make-it-out feeling that’s a highlight of the book. Even better, van Eekhout presents these changes nimbly, never walloping the reader with more setting info than we need.
This LA is the capital city of a separate nation, ruled over by the most powerful osteomancer, the tyrannical Hierarch, who is not afraid to throw his mammoth weight around. (In that sentence, “mammoth” isn’t figurative, as long as the Hierarch has enough mammoth bones for dinner.) This LA has problems with traffic, much like our LA, only here, Angelinos get stuck in their boats, since the primary transportation network is a city-wide canal system. The water system is overseen by William Mulholland, who in our world resigned in disgrace after a dam disaster; here, Mulholland talks casually about letting a dam break to teach people a lesson. (Though, no matter how van Eekhout describes him, I’ll always picture him as John Huston playing Noah Cross in Chinatown.) And here Walt Disney’s theme park is the happiest place on earth, thanks to some osteomantic formula pumped into the air. (Also, there’s a strange musician named “Wilson Bryant,” which seems like a version of Brian Wilson. I just read Hawkeye #16 with its own version of Brian Wilson named “Will Bryson.” Are fictional Brian Wilsons the next big thing?) In this world, the La Brea Tar Pits provide a magical bone buffet for the Hierarch and all the osteomancers he controls.
Or at least the Tar Pits used to provide a lot of ancient bone, but that resource is steadily dwindling. Not only are the government stores of bones running low, but Daniel Blackland barely ekes out a living as an osteomantic thief, stealing little bits of bone dust where he can. So when Daniel’s old criminal patron comes up with plans for one big heist–to knock over the Hierarch’s own private ossuary now that they have an inside man–Daniel is prompted to get the old team together. In classic heist montage, Daniel collects each of his old friends during some scene that allows them to show off their special moves: the shapeshifter is shilling for a rejuvenating face-cream, the muscle shows off his indestructible body while destroying some other people’s, etc. Naturally, as in many a heist, there’s some friction and distrust between the thieves; there’s the specter of the last heist this team pulled together; there’s the mini-heists where they gather the materials for the big heist.
Maybe you’ve noticed that I can go on and on about the setting, but I’m prepared to brush the heist plot off with a paragraph. I have a few reasons for this: first, I don’t want to spoil anything, and somehow telling you the end of the heist feels more spoilery than telling you that Walt Disney appears. Second, the heist is fast-paced and fun, but it’s also in some ways very traditional–which I think is both on-purpose and on-point. If you like heists, you’ll like this one. Third, I actually could go on and on about heists–hey, you ever think about how the heist party structure mirrors the classic D&D-style fantasy party structure?–so maybe it’s a good thing if we wrap this up before I really get started on the topic.
But the big reason I’m not going to go into the heist at any great length is because, as much as I’ve heard this talked about as a caper novel, there’s a lot of other genres going on–and a lot more plot than just the heist. Again, no real spoilers, but in terms of other genres mixed in here, I’ve already hinted at elements of epic fantasy (Daniel Blackland with his special power is a little bit of a chosen one, sans prophecy (so far)); dystopia (the repressive bureaucracy and its many little horrors, including the lesser evil of a bureaucratic investigator just trying to do his job); and the great macabre touches that serve as counterpoint to the generally light tone of the heist. When the heist team breaks through a wall, I hear jaunty Mission:Impossible-style music; when they break through to a room walled in human bones, my internal record scratches.
Which I like. Ultimately, your enjoyment of this book will probably come down to moments like that, and whether the horrific reality of oppression mixes well with, or jars against, the fun adventure parts of the novel. When we see that the magic system (whee!) is founded on death, consumption, and man’s inhumanity to man (ugh), some readers may wish to get off the ride. Though it’s not the focus of the book, there are some pretty weighty topics here, mostly about the price of power (both for the user and for everyone else) and the use of power–and how that power can be disrupted by some charming thieves.
There’s a lot to enjoy here: for one thing, this is a reasonably-sized novel where something actually happens; and while it tells a complete story, this first book in the trilogy sets up some really interesting plot threads. But there were some bumps along the way for me. Some of the scenes (and inter-scene shifts) happen so quickly that readers may not have the time to savor van Eekhout’s invention; certain episodes felt glossed over. On top of that, some of these quick shifts left me without much grasp on certain characters’ motivations. This may be appropriate for a heist where you don’t know whom you can trust, but it does occasionally slow down the thrill ride. There’s also one moment in the book where the answer to a narrative character question is “magic” and this seems to be a very divisive moment among reviewers. I think the author is setting us up for a long con of his own in books two and three and I cheered at the chutzpah of it; but other readers may differ.
Still, most of the bumps in the book are both minor bumps, and often related to its considerable strengths. (A book that moves at such a speed may rush over certain developments without letting them fully develop.) Whatever its faults, it’s hard not to get caught up in a book that has as much fun as this one when it’s describing some really grim things; and after the end of California Bones, I’m looking forward to seeing where van Eekhout takes us next.