June 17, 2014 by mmileti
It is not often that you run across a story that is completely unique, but California Bones definitely can be described in such a way. It is a genre-bending novel that is somewhere between urban fantasy, alternate history, and dystopian science fiction. It takes place in Southern California (where I lived throughout my college years- though now I am back in Northern California) and it was fascinating to read a fantastical and action packed story that is set in a place I know so well. In this novel van Eekhout somehow manages to make the setting feel both familiar and utterly changed. Even with elements of magic and an altered history, he still wrote a story that contains the essence of my home state.
California Bones is the story of Daniel Blackland, a young man with a forged identity and a penchant for thievery. His father Sebastian Blackland first introduced Daniel to magic when he was only six years old. He fed Daniel a piece of Kraken spine that gave him the power of a storm. In the California that Daniel knows, magical creatures (from firedrakes to griffins) are real creatures, even though most have now gone extinct. By ingesting the bones of such creatures, one can gain a piece of their magic, and Los Angeles’ La Brea Tar pits are a perfect cache of these magic bestowing bones.
Southern California has become a Kingdom of its own, and unfortunately its ruler, the Hierarch, has become Daniel’s worst enemy. At the age of twelve Daniel watched the Hierarch murder his father and steal his significant magical powers for himself, along with a magic sword his father had been creating that contained some of Daniel’s own essence. Ten years later, long after he has been presumed dead by the Hierarch, Daniel discovers that the Hierarch is planning on retrieving the sword from an underground vault with the intention of wielding it. Now Daniel must assemble his team of thieves and break in to the Hierarch’s impenetrable vault before the sword is used, for whoever wields the sword is wielding Daniel himself.
This novel’s unique magic system captures the reader’s attention from the very beginning. The concept of ingesting a substance to gain power has been around for ages in fiction and real life. In fact, it is the same concept behind the current copious use of rhinoceros horn in Asian countries, and subsequently the endangered status of this species. But van Eekhout takes an old concept and morphs it into an incredibly distinctive premise for a story. His imagination is boundless, and his writing is the perfect balance between unique, exciting, and engaging. He brings the reader into the story in a way that invokes all the senses, and immerses him in a fine bouquet of storytelling elements. Van Eekhout draws the reader even deeper into the novel with a fast-paced plot and a cast of incredibly interesting characters. Daniel is not the most complex character I have ever come across but he is still very well-developed, and as he is torn between his need to find his father’s sword, vengeance for the Hierarch, and loyalty for his friends, he becomes a protagonist that it is exceptionally easy to sympathize with.
The novel is also told from a second point of view; that of one of the Hierarch’s distant relatives named Gabriel. Gabriel holds a position of power in the Kingdom of Southern California, and it is not long until he inadvertently finds himself of the trail of Daniel and his crew. In many ways Gabriel is just as sympathetic a character as Daniel, and even though they seem to be working towards opposite ends, Daniel and Gabriel have a shocking amount in common. As the story progresses I found myself enjoying Gabriel’s storyline immensely, and the glimpse his character gives into the working of the Hierarch’s Kingdom really demonstrates the immensity of what Daniel and his friends are up against. The details of the world the author has created in this novel are both horrifying and fascinating, and the vivid imagery that is used is sometimes grotesque and other times vibrant. There are scenes from this book that will stay with well you after you have finished reading; it is one of those novels that are simply difficult to stop thinking about.
This novel’s action movie pacing combined with its aura of mystery serve to yield a book that is the equivalent of a summer blockbuster. If you find yourself looking for the perfect novel to bring on vacation this summer, I would definitely recommend California Bones. It is an easy book to devour, and even though it is fun to read, there are parts of it that are pure horror. I guarantee it is a novel that is not quite like anything else you have ever read.
Overall I would rate this book an 8/10, and I really hope this book ends up garnering the attention it deserves.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley and the publisher (Tor) in return for an honest review.