California Bones, by Greg Van Eekhout
Posted August 9, 2014on:
where I got it: borrowed ARC from My Bookish Ways
Writing a magic system readers will resonate with is a tricky thing. Some readers like them to work like, well, magic, with hands twirling or fingers snapping, other readers need something a little more meaty. I’m a meaty girl, and I go crazy for a magic system that’s complicated, expensive*, and intimately connected to the physical body of the magician. I want there to be some chemistry, some science to the whole thing. For lack of a better term, I want the magic to feel plausible. That said, it took less than one chapter for me to completely buy into and fall in love with the magic system in Greg Van Eekhout’s California Bones.
*And by expensive, I don’t mean money. I mean if you screw it up, you’re probably going to die. So don’t screw it up.
This is a magic system that is based on ingesting the bones, tissues, and fossils of the thing whose properties you want to use. And where else to find the fossils of ancient magical creatures, like mammoths, griffins, mastodons, eocorns, krakens and basilisks but southern California’s La Brea Tar Pits? Ingest the ancient residues of these creatures, and take into yourself the powers of long life, fire, invisibility and other powers.
This is the magic of ancient bones. This is osteomancy. And excuse my language, but it is fucking brilliant.
By the nature of what it is, osteomancers are working with a finite resource, a commodity. There are only so many basilisk fangs and mammoth tusks floating around. All the osteomantic knowledge in the world is useless if no one is selling the animal parts you need. The opposite of brilliant is dark as hell, and osteomancy ain’t all fun and games. If you’re ingesting osteomantic items, you are in effect storing them in your body for later use. The high mages who run Los Angeles aren’t stupid, they attend to the corpses of their enemies with a fork.
I am not spoiling anything when I tell you our story begins with a boy eating a kraken bone, an assassination, and a fork.
Daniel grew up in the underbelly of Los Angeles, but he never forgot what his father fed him. He wasn’t ever formally trained in osteomancy, and as an orphaned child Daniel was taken in by Otis, an active player in the local black market. Otis trained Daniel in thievery, con artistry, and generally keeping his head down, since the powers that be believe they destroyed his entire family. In the course of a few chapters, what started out as a dark and alluring urban fantasy flipped itself inside out and became a heist story that centers around a person who was supposed to be dead.
Wait, it’s a heist story? With a fricken’ incredible magic system and secrets all over the place? Shut up and take my money.
The story itself gets going pretty quickly, with Daniel being offered a job he can’t refuse, collecting his crew, and planning the job. And I loved how Van Eekhout introduced everyone, especially Moth. On the surface, Daniel’s got the standard bank robbing crew: Cassandra is the pickpocketing and lockpick extraordinaire, Jo is the master con artist, and Moth is the muscles. But did I mention Jo is a shapeshifter and Moth is invulnerable? And then there’s Emma, their woman on the inside. Her memories taste like when Daniel’s mother tried to escape after her husband’s assassination. Just got more interesting, didn’t it?
At first, it feels like the world building is on the light side, but it only feels that way because but Van Eekhout gracefully slips all the world building and characterization you need into much of the dialog. You’ll figure out pretty quickly this is *not* the Los Angeles you know, and you’ll suddenly know to watch for particular names and hints. No clunky huge chunks of exposition here, because the reader is getting everything they need to know without realizing it’s happening. Sort of like being pickpocketed, but in reverse, and to your brain.
There’s also the taste and smell thing, and this really resonated with me. Lots of characters identify particular magical items and the presence of magic by the unique smell of the items. Maybe you’ve made yourself invisible by ingesting Sint Holo (totally illegal, btw), but there’s no masking the recognizable scent of confusion. I am very
sensitive attuned to smells, so every time a characters mentioned that something smelled right, or smelled off, I was like “I know exactly what you mean!”. I don’t go around sniffing everything like a puppy, and I imagine Daniel doesn’t either. You get it in your nose just by breathing, you know?
So they do the heist gig, Moth dies a couple of times, and everything is going great. Then everything goes pear shaped. There is so much more going on here than a crew robbing an underground vault, or family family secrets, or political machinations, or Daniel understanding what he’s grown into, and what his father was building him up to be all those years ago. And here’s where words fail me, because it was omgawesomeincredible where can I get more of this?
The reveal at the end felt like I’d been calling into a darkened room for a while, thinking I was shouting into a room the size of a large bedroom. And then I shine my flashlight into the room, and realize it’s not a room, it’s a chasm. The scale of the thing made whispers out of my screams. Yeah, it was like that.
A fully complete story, I wouldn’t have known this was the first in a series unless the marketing material that came with the ARC mentioned there was a sequel in the works. But now that I think about it, there are some loose ends in the story – a “family” that is quickly introduced and given something precious, hints that osteomancy works both directions (that was vague on purpose), a motherless child Daniel rescues, and a disgruntled government worker who might be helping Daniel or might just be helping himself.
It boils down to this: California Bones offers fantastic and fun characters, a tightly written and compelling plot that goes in all sorts of unexpected and awesome directions, hints of a much larger world, creeptastically disturbing bad guys, and an undead Walt Disney. And have I mentioned the fucking brilliant magic system that I am head over heels in love with?