BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A decade after escaping Los Angeles, the osteomancer Daniel Blackland and his protegé Sam are lured back to the city to deal with the construction of a superweapon.
PROS: A welcome expansion of the playground of Eekhout’s universe; excellent secondary characters.
CONS: Main character is not quite as compelling as the protagonist of the first novel.
BOTTOM LINE: A satisfying return to the world of California Bones that builds on the original novel.
Sam isn’t a real boy, but don’t hold that against him! He’s a golem — a clone, really — of the late Hierarch, the former ruler of the Kingdom of Southern California, the magic-using autarch who used the bones of ancient creatures (and not so ancient rival mages) to build and extend his power. Rescued from the Hierarch’s laboratories by osteomancer Daniel Blackland when the latter overthrew his creator, Sam has been trying to learn magic, and like his mentor, stay one step ahead of the other magic users in Southern California. Both Sam and Daniel are still dangerous rogue elements that the power brokers remaining in the Kingdom want to control or destroy. Living in the deserts and mountains on the run is hard enough, but when news of a superweapon, a living dragon, being constructed in Los Angeles comes to Daniel and Sam, things are going to get a whole lot worse.
Pacific Fire is the sequel to Greg Van Eekhout’s California Bones. The novels are set in a fantasy-infused version of our own world, with a geopolitical setup similar to our own. In the California Bones universe, two California Kingdoms are nations independent of the United States, petty tyrannies built and maintained by various forms of magic. The primary form of magic, however, is osteomancy, the ingestion of the fossilized bones of magical creatures such as Griffins and Dragons to gain temporary abilities. One can also kill an osteomancer and do the same thing to her bones, since the ingestion of magical bone leaves permanent changes to the magician. That latter fact propelled the narrative of California Bones, as the novel opened with Daniel’s father being killed by the Hierarch for his magical powers while removing a political threat at the same time. California Bones tells us the story of Daniel’s revenge, through the wild ride lens of a heist story.
In Pacific Fire, Sam, and his mentor and protector, Daniel, are on the outs and on the run. Daniel is important because he is one of the most powerful osteomancers around, his bones priceless. Sam is equally important, not only because of his osteomantic potential, but because he is a clone of the Hierarch. A young-looking version of the Hierarch is a potent symbol to rally around, or organize against. The surrogate father-son relationship between Daniel and Sam is not overplayed, but the intent and strength of the bond and relationship are made clear. In a few words and a time jump, we get a sense of how the two characters have lived and grown over a decade of running and hiding.
I also liked the secondary characters of the novel, particularly Em. The Marvel Comic Stepford Cuckoo-esque Emmas are one of the best bits of world building and character development in California Bones and we get to see a lot more of them and what they do in Pacific Fire. Having one of them as Sam’s partner for most of the novel was an excellent decision, and her presence buoys the novel. The author takes great pains to establish her as a character in her own right — with abilities, goals, and viewpoint — rather than being a mere plot device or love interest for Sam. We also get to see a variety of characters from the first novel, who have in their own ways moved on (or not) from where we left them in California Bones.
Even given his relations with Daniel, Em, and others in the novel, I didn’t find Sam quite as interesting a character as the original Daniel in California Bones. The Daniel in this book, ten years on, is a very different character than his original incarnation, but he is sidelined for a fair chunk of time in the novel. (The novel did pick up when Daniel gets back in the action, and is suddenly confronted by the ghosts of his own past.) As much as I wanted to, Sam’s plight and situation never really rose to capture my imagination quite in the same way that Daniel’s story did in the first novel. Given Daniel’s power and abilities, the sidelining of him is not a bad narrative choice, but I do admit to missing him for large chunks of the novel. The voice that the author brings to Daniel, both here and in California Bones, is significantly stronger than with Sam. Sam is not a bad character, mind, but perhaps it’s the strength of other characters, including minor characters, antagonist and protagonist alike, that overwhelms him. Pinocchio can be a hard act to pull off.
California Bones used the heist show Leverage as a template for its plot, but Pacific Fire uses a different template: not only Pinocchio but even a Man in the Iron Mask leitmotif, and that’s to its advantage. I wouldn’t have wanted a repeat of California Bones, as enjoyable as the heist format of that story was. The inclusion of new characters, new facets to the universe, and further details on the world building enrich the universe that the author is building, and the characters he is creating. The ending of the novel (in a very vague sense) was somewhat telegraphed for me once a crucial piece of information fell into place during the narrative. However, the story possibilities of going with this choice are an enthusiastic pointer for the next novel in the series. I eagerly look forward to reading it.