California Bones by Greg van Eekhout
Genre: Adult Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: June 10 2014
Source: Finished hardcover from publisher
The nitty-gritty: A disturbing—yet unique and compelling—magic system, set in a gritty and dangerous alternate world Los Angeles, a dangerous heist, and lots of double-crossing.
They passed into a chamber. Ragged and moldy tapestries hung like cobwebs before walls plated with scapulas. Femurs, arranged in fluted columns, soared to a domed ceiling, the remains of boys from Sacramento and San Francisco and Fort Bragg, and Kansas and Nebraska and New York and Connecticut, and Chumash and Cupeño and Mohave Indians from California, and all the enemy captures from the Hierarch’s wars. Places like this were where the Hierarch flung his toothpicks.
Hey, I finally get to gush about a book with the word “bones” in it, ha ha! I had the best time reading California Bones! Not only did it remind me how much I love urban fantasy, but it takes place in my own backyard, and it was a blast reading about places that I’ve actually been to. I was lucky enough to meet the author this past weekend at San Diego Comic Con, and I want to give a big thanks to Tor Books for giving away free copies of the book. Since I had already received a review copy from the publisher, I’m going to give my signed copy away to one person who leaves a comment on this post (U.S. only this time). California Bones is an irresistible mix of Ocean’s Eleven-type heist story and urban fantasy, set in a magical Los Angeles that seems familiar at first glance, but is really quite different.
Daniel Blackland is a thief who has been hired by his “uncle” Otis to break into the ossuary, an underground vault of sorts that houses some very powerful magic. But Daniel is much more than a thief. He’s literally been fed magic from the time he was a young boy in the form of the bones of extinct and magical creatures, making him a powerful osteomancer. Not only that, but Daniel is technically dead and living under the radar. Otis makes a deal with him that’s too good to pass up: if Daniel succeeds in his mission, he can keep the sword that was stolen from Daniel’s father, a sword which contains Daniel’s magical essence and is hidden somewhere beneath the city. When the story begins, Daniel is rounding up his “crew” for the job: a shapeshifter named Jo; Daniel’s ex Cassandra who is a master lock-picker, among other things; Moth, the muscle of the group who has the ability to survive any injury and heal himself; and Emma, the mysterious “inside man.”
As Daniel and his crew plan their heist, a magician named Gabriel has noticed something odd: a rare magical signature in the city that proves that Daniel Blackland, who presumably died ten years ago, is still alive. And the hunt is on. In the middle of all the action is the elusive yet all-powerful Hierarch, the magician who rules the Kingdom of Southern California and who wants nothing more than to get his hands on Daniel’s magic.
There is so much to love about this book. I think the world-building was probably my favorite part. Van Eekhout sets his story in a magical Los Angeles that still has many of the places I’m familiar with, like the La Brea Tar Pits, Disneyland, and the Griffith Observatory. But he also turns LA on its head by using a watery canal system in place of its freeways. It takes guts to pull that one off, but the author somehow convinces us that riding boats to get from one place to another is perfectly normal. He also uses lots of sly references to real people, such as William Mulholland, the man who was responsible for building the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 1900s (and whose name you will recognize if you live in Los Angeles—Mulholland Drive, anyone?) and who in California Bones is a water mage. Even Walt Disney makes an appearance!
Daniel’s ability as an osteomancer was fascinating, and despite the slight “ick” factor of eating animal and human bones to acquire magical powers, I loved the way Daniel could use a creature’s magic for his own—for example, by ingesting the bones of a sea creature, Daniel is able to breath underwater.
The characters were very well done as well, although the book was almost too short for me and I would have liked to get to know them even more. Even though Daniel’s parents are dead when the story begins, we get to know both of them in flashbacks, particularly his father, who was a powerful osteomancer in his own right, and who literally made Daniel into the magician he is. (And whose death is described in horrific detail!)
I loved the unusual character of Max, the “human hound” that Gabriel frees, who then helps him track Daniel. Max is human, but he’s been specially bred—like a hound dog—to smell the faintest traces of magic and find whoever he’s looking for. Just about every character in the book surprised me at some point. Van Eekhout gives them superhero-like abilities, but each has his or her own faults as well. These magicians are about as human as you can get!
If you enjoy twisty tales that are full of unexpected double-crosses, then you are going to love this book. California Bones has everything—a compelling story, a unique magical system, danger around every corner, and characters that feel like friends—and I’m thrilled that this is only the first in a trilogy. Highly recommended!
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