by Greg Van Eekhout
There's something about a heist. Maybe it's that particular blend of recklessness and calculation, that absolute guarantee of unforeseen circumstances and impressive feats of resourcefulness to combat them, that peculiarly fast-paced and adrenaline-pumping game of strategy and deception. Whatever the cause, heists have a bone-deep magic all their own.
For Daniel Blackland, it all started with a kraken spine. He was a young child when he received his first taste of osteomancy, fed a scalding combination of kraken essence and magic by his sorcerer father. In the chaos of the Third Purge, Daniel lost his home and family, but he didn't lose his taste for magic. Ever since, Daniel has made a living on the streets of Los Angeles as a trickster and thief, content with anonymity, his only ambition to leave the city that consumed his father's bones. Yet despite Daniel's carefully nurtured inconspicuousness, when an opportunity comes up to rob the Hierarch's secred ostemantic storehouse, the chance is too tempting to resist. Together with his offbeat group of friends, Daniel begins to plan one of the most audacious heists in LA's checkered history. Unfortunately for Daniel, his anonymity is coming to an end. Gabriel Argent, agent of the Hierarch, may not be known for his ambition, but he is not lacking in intelligence. When Gabriel discovers a small incongruity in a standard sweep for magic, he puts together the clues that lead to Daniel's identity. But Gabriel jumps to a conclusion that makes stopping Daniel imperative: that Daniel is after a far greater score than mere treasure: the Hierarch himself.
California Bones transports the reader to an alternate reality whose occasional similarities to our own only heighten the alien nature of this fractured, stultified land. In general, I don't tend to favour alternate history-- it usually seems to be a somewhat lazy way of minimizing the need for worldbuilding while still allowing for inconsistently applied deviations from our reality-- so my acceptance of the book's world speaks to its breadth of creativity and imagination. Close to a century ago, the Hierarch proclaimed himself ruler of the kingdom of Southern California. Northern California and the United States expressed violent dissatisfaction, but the Hierarch emerged victorious, and Yankee bones were embedded in the walls as decorations in the Hierarch's underground labyrinths. The Hierarch's internal rule was no less brutal: purge after purge of osteomancers followed his ascension, including the death of Daniel's father during the third purge, the Night of Long Knives. Now, Los Angeles stirs with undercurrents of discontent, but is stifled and paralyzed by the threat of the Hierarch's osteomancy.
In Daniel's Los Angeles, gondola buses struggle along the canals of Ventura and Santa Monica, for in this city of angels, all of the city's transportation network was built in the image of Venice. In this version of the La Brea tarpits, the unearthed skeletons take on additional significance:
The La Brea Tar Pits was a place where the skin of the world broke open to reveal the magic underneath, and the life-sized plaster mammoth sculptures emphasized a very important message: Do not fuck with tar.
While outwardly as crowded and chaotic as our own LA, these streets are patrolled by the Hierarch's garm dogs and human hounds who are constantly on alert for the barest sniff of unauthorized magic. Criminals risk the wrath of the LAPD and LA's Strategic Magic Assault Command squad (SMAC). Street hawkers sell dubious concoctions that they proclaim to be grade-A powdered hydra or firedrake tooth, while purposeful wraiths go about their masters' business with single-minded devotion. The city's charm, too, is a little more brutally artificial: Disney's paradise and Hollywood's allure are built upon addictive osteomantic drugs. Yet the core of LA remains the same, a steely glitter that can only partially conceal the ugly struggle for notoriety and power and fame that lies submerged underneath the glamour.
The novel is short and fast-paced, yet rich in detail. The writing is deceptively simple and spare, leavened with a wry wit and an occasional heart-wrenching poignancy. The writing is so visceral that I nearly dry-heaved at some of the scenes, and so visual that the city streets and canals come to life. Most of the humour is built upon absurd situations and light dialogue, but also through repetition and understatement; for example:
"The jar was coated in finely ground firedrake scales, the only substance known to withstand seps venom, but even so equipped, there were a lot of ways he could screw this up. Spill the venom and it would eat through the jar, the worktable, the floor, the foundation, the fabled dragon heart at the center of the earth, and probably shoot up in an acid geyser on a quiet residential street in China. So, you know, thought Daniel, don't spill the acid."
Osteomancy is a brutal, voracious art: to gain the powers of an ancient and powerful creature, an osteomancer must ingest the animal's bones and absorb its essence. Consuming kraken spine grants the osteomancer power over storms and the crushing darkness of the ocean deeps. Cerberus wolf gives the sorcerer fast reflexes and inhumanly acute senses. Essence of sint holo gives the osteomancer the power to confuse those around him so that he becomes invisible. I loved the way in which osteomancy is portrayed as a non-renewable resource pilfered from the earth and jealously guarded, so intrinsic to everyday life that without it, the city would grind to a stop. Osteomancers are the ultimate in rapacious consumers. The lure of bone is as relentless as the struggle for power, and failure can be costly: the most expedient way of gaining magic is by devouring another osteomancer, body and bones.
Both Daniel and Gabriel struggle against this consumer-driven world in their own ways. Both have gone to great lengths to remain as ordinary and inconspicuous as they can, but their origins inevitably drag them back into the cut-throat world of politics and osteomancy. For Daniel, the struggle is even more difficult, because to succeed, he must also take advantage of his friends, another, subtler form of cannibalism:
"Daniel was still a thief, which meant he took things and used things he had no rightful claim to, because that was how he and his friends survived."
California Bones is a brief and hectic adventure; a glimpse of a richly-detailed world of grey morality, mean streets, and brutal magic. Even through the imaginatively altered world that osteomancy engenders, it captures the atmosphere of L.A. noir, a James M Cain-like caper with cannibalistic sorcerers. Yet it also manages to touch lightly upon deeper themes: the dangers and lures of power, the complexity of dependence upon non-renewable resources, the use and misuse of friends.
I can't wait for the sequel.
**NOTE: Quotations are taken from an uncorrected digital galley and are therefore provisional. Quotes will be corrected when the book is released.**
~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Macmillan Tor-Forge, in exchange for my honest review.~~