Sunday, July 6, 2014

California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout

California Bones
Greg Van Eekhout
2014 Tor Books

reviewed by carol

★    ★    ★    ★    ★   

You ever have that experience where you finish a book, and are left feeling all discombobulated; not sure exactly what time it is because the sun set while you were reading, and actually kind of hungry because you might have missed dinner? California Bones did that to me. 

It wasn’t an instant draw; it had blipped across my radar long enough to make it onto my TBR list, but it wasn’t until bookaneer’s review that I was motivated it to move it up. I picked it up from the library and was sucked into its pages until a solid two hours later. Unbelievably good, it was a breath of fresh air–the forceful Southern California Santa Anas, perhaps–blowing away an urban fantasy landscape cluttered with vampires and werewolves. Van Eekhout combined an almost-now Los Angeles with fast-paced heist, built it on the foundation of serious family drama, added an upbringing in a thieves’ gang, and wrapped the whole thing in some of the more interesting magic I’ve read in this year. 

“‘Our bodies are cauldrons,’ he said, ‘and we become the magic we consume.’ He often said things like that, things that circled around the perimeter of Daniel’s understanding, sometimes veering just within reach before darting away into ever-widening orbits. Daniel could remember the names of osteomantic creatures and their properties–mastodon for strength, griffin for speed and flight, basilisk for venom–but he grew lost when Sebastian spoke of the root concepts of magic.

The story begins with a quick flashback to Daniel Blackhand’s childhood, learning magic from his father Sebastian; then forward to a powerful moment his family is ripped apart by the Hierarch; and then a third jump into current time with Daniel working the open-air market. He lands from one frying pan into another fire, only to be offered the ultimate thieves’ job, complete with the opportunity to recover a very personal item.  At the same time, Gabriel, a bureaucrat and minor relative of the Hierarch, has the sense of unfamiliar magic in the vacinity and is troubled that some of the city powers are starting to talk of sedition. When he meets the handler and dog who were chasing Daniel in the market, it sets him on Daniel’s trail, and brings an unexpected chance to confront his own past.
The writing is enjoyable; fast paced, descriptive enough to cause a vivid image or two but never lingering too long, naval gazing at the scenery (I’m talking to you, Way of Kings). An almost perfect tone for the story, it waxes a bit lyrical when describing the magic of osteomancy in all its grim, powerful, glory. I found the degree to which Van Eekhout could make the The Hierarch and his six underlings menacing remarkable, despite their rare appearance.

I liked characterization of Daniel, an ambivalent hero who is mostly trying to keep his head down after the destruction of his childhood. Gabriel is an interesting foil, essentially using the same strategy within the Hierarch’s organization. Side characters are fleshed out enough, and the fact that they are able to still surprised Daniel seems entirely possible. I rather enjoyed Emma and Max, who each played rather interesting sidekick roles to Daniel and Gabriel.

Plotting is quick and ultimately, contained a few unexpected twists. The heist is great fun at the beginning, the standard untouchable target. If it also employs a standard set-up of recruiting the team and planning for the gauntlet, at least it comes complete with humor:

Emma Walker had observed this routine for three consecutive weekdays before fishing his coffee cup from the trash and identifying the contents of his flask: tequila.
Who the hell put tequila in their coffee? It was disgusting and obscene, and it made everyone on the crew feel better about what they were going to do to Sergeant Ballpeen.

During the heist, crew member Emma takes a moment to wax poetic:

‘All my being,’ Emma whispered, ‘like him whom the Numidian seps did thaw into a dew with poison, is dissolved, sinking through its foundations.’
That’s from a poem,’ she said with some despair to the crew’s stupefied expressions.
‘Yeah, Shelley,’ Moth said. ‘It’s just we usually don’t do poetry during jobs.’

The humor nicely contrasts the dark feel of the osteomantic magic, and the compromising situations the team members find themselves in. At the moment, the first three chapters are available for free on Van Eekhout’s website. I highly suggest you give them a try.  All in all, it really worked for me, and I’m looking forward to immersing myself a second time–and eventually adding it to the paper collection.

cross-posted at my site:

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