Daniel Blackland has been raised to be a magician from at least the time he was six years old and found a kraken spine on Santa Monica Beach. He inherited his propensity to osteomancy — bone magic — from his father, a powerful magician who has made his share of enemies. More than that, he was trained, shaped and molded by his father, who wants to make him strong enough to withstand the schemes of his enemies, regardless of how that hill hurt him, physically and emotionally. But his father never had the time to train Daniel properly. In his adulthood, therefore, Daniel has turned into a petty thief — an accomplished, uncannily talented petty thief, but a thief nonetheless. He has stuck to small crimes out of choice, not because he is incapable of grand heists. Unfortunately, his crime boss Uncle Otis isn’t content to see Daniel allow his magic to go to waste. He has demanded that Daniel carry out a seemingly impossible theft, one that only he and his team have the most slender hope of accomplishing: he wants Daniel to break into the Ossuary, the vault where the Hierarch stores his personal stash of magic, to steal basilisk fangs, worth a good half a million. Daniel refuses the job, until Otis reveals that the Ossuary also contains the sword Daniel’s father was working on when he was killed — a powerful weapon that was essentially made of Daniel, and one that the Hierarch has plans to use, which means he would be using Daniel. Daniel has no option but to use his strange talents to challenge the most impenetrable treasury in his world.
California Bones, then, is a heist novel, a thief’s tale — one of the standard models of fantasy adventure. But Greg van Eekhout has created a new system of magic that takes this trope into new territory. Osteomancy, in van Eekhout’s Los Angeles, depends on the ingestion of bones, and the ingestion of those who have themselves ingested those bones. The bones of creatures, both those we find in our world and the supernatural creatures, like krakens and banshees (and many others, some of which I had never heard of, like a lamassu), have become rare through years of predation, making it all the more important to the powerful to find and eat those humans who themselves wield power, as the power of the eaten becomes that of the eater. This is a world that is has more of the jungle to it, in a more literal way, than our world does.
Indeed, it is not only the magic system that has been carefully built, but the world itself. This Los Angeles looks a good deal like ours, but it is also different in myriad fascinating ways. For instance, roads do not exist here; only waterways do, with tramways for hilly areas. When one hails a cab, it is a boat. Democracy has no place here; a Hierarch runs the Kingdom of Southern California, with powerful underlings who are barely held in check, each with their own sphere of influence. William Mulholland, for instance, is an ancient water mage. Recognize that name? In our world, William Mulholland was an infrastructure designer who was the head of the processor department to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. In van Eekhout’s world, he wields a great deal more power — but, interestingly, to many of the same ends as our Mulholland.
I was fascinated by the way van Eekhout found plot points by transmuting our world into his. So, for instance, the growing lack of bones for osteomancy can be seen as the dwindling reserves of fossil fuels in our world — in some ways, quite literally, as oil is essentially comprised of the remnants of ancient creatures like dinosaurs. I’m curious about how the Kingdom of Southern California came to be, and what the rest of what we call the United States — indeed, the rest of the world — looks like, and what other kinds of magic might be out there. The substitution of magic for technology is not new, but building a world so nearly identical to ours through magic is a difficult task that van Eekhout has accomplished well.
I hope van Eekhout takes us back to this world that looks and acts like ours in so many ways. I want to know what else is out there. van Eekhout has a fine imagination, and I’m eager to see what he creates next.
The fantasy heist or caper novel, a la Oceans Eleven, has become a bit of a thing lately, and Greg van Eekhout’s California Bones is a thoroughly enjoyable entry in the sub-genre, with the requisite impregnable vault, witty banter, hard-nosed villains, and the like, in addition to a relatively unique magic system. It’s a good introduction to this multi-book series and having just finished book two, you can rest assured there isn’t any drop-off going forward (if anything, I actually liked Pacific Fire a little better).
The setting of California Bones is Los Angeles, but an L.A. in an alternate world, one where Southern and Northern California are their own kingdoms, separate from the United States; where L.A.’s notorious freeways are replaced by a canal system, and where some people are wielders of osteomancy — a magical system where power comes from ingesting bones (or, more gruesomely, eating those who have already eaten those bones). Think Brandon Sanderson’s alomancy but using bone rather than metal. Different creatures’ bones give different abilities — griffons, dragons, manticores, krakens; this is not the L.A. of little lapdogs and coyotes. Nor does it matter how old the bones are, so a major industry sprang up for instance around the La Brea Tar Pits to mine them of every bit of ancient bone that could be found (by the time of the novel they’re almost tweezing out the fragments).
The most powerful osteomancer is the Hierarch, who rules over L.A. with an iron fist (or stomach), ruthlessly putting down any perceived threats. Daniel Blackland lost his father — a powerful osteomancer himself — in one such purge, and carries with him the horror of watching the Hierarch begin to eat his father. Daniel escaped thanks to his father’s training and his own powerful magic, and he’s been keeping a low profile ever since, making his way via petty thievery, mostly in the employ of Otis, the gangster boss who raised him. Daniel left Otis a while back, but when Otis makes him an offer he can’t refuse, Daniel assembles his team and prepares to carry out the impossible: breaking into the Hierarch’s fabled Ossuary, a legendary vault filled with powerful bones.
Meanwhile, one of the Hierarch’s grand-nephews, Gabriel Argent, has started to wonder if Daniel Blackland was actually captured and killed while trying to escape Southern California years ago, as has been believed. His point-of-view chapters offer a nice bit of tension as he tries to track Daniel, as well as a more interesting view of the Hierarch’s society. It’s through him as well we get to meet this world’s version of Disney and William Mulholland (he’s the guy who basically created, and then ran L.A.’s water system — think Chinatown).
The caper part of the plot is well handled, with a good sense of pace and tension, and Daniel’s crew is a pleasure to spend time with, both for their own personalities (even if they’re sketched somewhat shallowly) and for their group dynamics. And van Eekhout does a nice job of adding a few complicating factors to those dynamics which serve to deepen things a bit.
I did have a few issues with California Bones. The ending felt both rushed and somewhat anti-climactic. While the alternate world aspects are often fun, I’m not sure they all hold together fully. But really, those were minor problems. Mostly California Bones was a fun read with likable characters who did a nice job of volleying dialogue back and forth. And with the sequel, Pacific Fire, being at least as good, there’s no reason not to jump in. Recommended.