Our bodies are cauldrons, and we become the magic we consume.
In Los Angeles, the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California, a young 6-year-old boy named Daniel Blackland ingests his first bone fragment—from a long-gone kraken—and feels its magic flowing through his body. That moment is his initiation into osteomancy, a lesson taught by his powerful magician father. In the future, after everything has fallen apart, this will remain one of his most prized memories of his dad.
In Los Angeles, a city of canals—aka the Venice of the Americas—Daniel Blackland, now 12, watches the Hierarch of Northern California savagely attack and eat his father, devoured for the magic within his bones. Daniel, who shares his father’s rare ability to retain and reuse ingested bone magic, has to go on the run or suffer the same fate.
In Los Angeles, a city torn apart by The Powers That Be, a Daniel Blackland in his early 20s is assigned a new mission by his uncle Otis, one of LA’s crime lords: to get into the Ossuary of the Hierarch, where the bones of fantastical creatures are kept. To perform the heist, he needs a team he can rely on. And who better than the friends who love him? Here enters Moth, with his healing powers; the shape-shifter Jo Alverado, and finally, the multitalented thief Cassandra, Daniel’s ex. And like any successful heist, he also needs a person on the inside: the mysterious and possibly untrustworthy Emma.
Should they succeed, a lot of money will be made (and hopefully Daniel can also reclaim the powerful sword his father crafted, stolen by the Hierarch and kept in the Ossuary). Should they fail, well…it’s probably best not to entertain that notion.
Set against the background of an alternate LA, California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout is a mixed bag of delights. On the one hand: wow. Talk about a fantastic premise and a supercreative setting. This alternate world is similar to ours in many ways and certain things are easily recognizable while others have been altered. This world’s version of Disney, for example: Creepy.As.Hell.
I loved the idea of bone magic and how it has shaped this world: the search for the fossilized remains of fantastical creatures of the past has fundamentally transformed this world and many of its people. Not only that but it has also created levels of power and hierarchic divisions that influence politics and personal freedoms. Thus, the sense of awe for the creativity regarding the worldbuilding comes together with a creeping sense of terror, the more we come to learn about it. The human hounds and the wraiths are only but two of the most horrific facets of a world where magic is very real and power is all the more corrupting for that. The elements surrounding the heist itself, especially the build-up to it, are that type of fun one comes to expect from this kind of setup.
On the other hand…the story is very uneven. The shift from chapter to chapter is quite abrupt and parts of the story were glossed over and awkward transitions meant that the story jumped to a later point without a smooth progression.
It’s also interesting—and somewhat frustrating—how the heist storyline suddenly fizzles out into something else altogether: frustrating because of all the build-up; interesting because, like any good heist story, there is always a twist. The twist here is that this is not a heist story at all. In fact, there is revenge, memory hijinks, love spells, and even potential for political revolution. But none of these elements are in the spotlight long enough for them to take hold. By the time expectations were adjusted after the story’s shift, it was already time to say goodbye. I can’t help but feel that the shortness of the novel (at only 300 pages) is detrimental not only to the core narrative but also to all of these disparate elements included. I felt this much more keenly when it came to the characters—we are told rather than shown how they felt or what they did, and all (apart from Daniel) are barely developed and therefore unfortunately become nothing but white noise in the background.
Like I said, it’s a bag of delights. Fun and creative, too? Yes. But also strangely devoid of any lasting impact. I’d still recommend it and will definitely be back for seconds.
In Book Smugglerish, a reticent 6 out of 10.