California Bones is a gem: a tightly written, accessible, heist-in-an-alternate-universe book where the world building and magic system are superb and the characters engaging. Although a great story in general, those familiar with the Los Angeles landscape will find familiar treats spread throughout the book: from the orange grease of a Tommy’s hamburger turning a napkin translucent to the statue of a familiar ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ mouse named “Burbank” (the city home of Disney Studios). I was enchanted by the book and appreciated that the author stayed true and direct with the storytelling, avoiding purple prose, endless discussions of the magic system, distractions and subplots, and unneeded filler. California Bones is an easy but fulfilling read.
Plot: Daniel is the son of one of Southern California’s greatest osteomancers (sorcery using bones). In a land ruled by the brutal Hierarch for over 80 years, being powerful is a threat; one that sees that elimination of Daniel’s father early in the young boy’s life. Left alone, hiding so as not to be killed by the Hierarch, Daniel subsists with the help of crime lord “uncle” Otis. But an intelligent official (and nephew of the Hierarch) soon discovers Daniel’s secret while Otis sends Daniel on a robbery that could set Daniel up for life. But exactly who is playing whom at this point?
California has such a history of crime noir fiction that it was about time we saw an alternate universe fantasy type noir in this setting. Like the Maltese Falcon, Daniel’s California (and in particular Los Angeles) is a moody dark place of crime and danger. And Daniel is an everyman – a guy trying to get by in that world. But unlike so many noir, Daniel and his group’s youth and colloquial speak make California Bones much more accessible and modern. There are quite a few amusing quips and rejoinders – enough to show camaraderie but never so many that the author feels like he is trying too hard. But make no mistake, although the robbery objective is a Macguffin, this is still very much a heist book with: Gather the right team, plan, avoid the obstacles, meet resistance, face betrayals, and recognize the MacGuffin (as in the example of the Maltese Falcon statue itself).
The magic building is on par with Sanderson: California Bones was taken from hia short story published in Asimov and expanded quite creatively. The use of bones from which to distill and then use essences of creatures was creatively applied. The system feels organic and especially logical. Not only does the system feel right but it also reaches a natural conclusion by the end of the book (natural resources are limited and there are only so many bones in the La Brea Tar pits). What you can get from animals, you can get from people, too. And people are far less limited in number.
What really worked for me was the ‘new’ Los Angeles. One that seceded from the US thanks to the Hierarch’s power and instead grew differently from our reality. The Venice canals reach across all of Los Angeles – all dirty and mucky and nothing like the ‘Little Venice’ proposed by Abbott Kinney at a time before automobiles. In the book, the canals are controlled by both the Hierarch and William Mulholland (an historical figure of Los Angeles history who controlled the water in the City). It is touches like adding in Mulholland (as a water sorcerer) and Walt Disney (as a glamour sorcerer) that really make reading this story fun. In some novels, the famous/historical names can be bothersome or annoying. But here they are only briefly touched upon, thereby making them less distracting and much more fun. In fact, the personages such as Mulholland are needed and intrinsic to the plot about a City falling apart and natural resources such as water (which could not be obtained from the Colorado river after Southern California seceded), are that much more critical.
But along with the historical aspects, we also get some of the fun modern. Tommy’s Haburgers, Tito’s Tacos, a robbery gone bad in Saugus, the water park in San Dimas, remains of Pacific Park (never make the Hierarch mad – he’ll earthquake your business away!), and so much more. If you’ve grown up in Los Angeles, these will all be so achingly familiar that the novel becomes that much more grounded and real. Again, although knowledge of Los Angeles isn’t necessary to enjoy the book, it definitely adds to the pleasure of reading.
Van Eekhout’s writing is direct and spartan, which makes for an easy read but can also take away some nuances. The story, plot, characters, even City are very black and white. People are driven by basic desires (greed, power, survival) but there are some great personalities in there as well. A man whose life is about being a dog to sniff out magic, for example, was particular interesting. And while some writers (read: Sanderson) will spend pages and pages pontificating on the magic system, Van Eekhout keeps the focus on the plot and doesn’t get distracted or meander. That focus makes the book more of an AU Ocean’s Eleven than a murky Chinatown noir piece.
In all, tight writing, enjoyable characters, rich setting, unique magic system, and a heist (rather than a ‘wizard’s journey’ cliche plot), kept me reading in one sitting. Highly recommended.
Reviewed from an ARC.