Cathedral of Bones by A.J. Steiger
Young teen Simon Frost has had a rough start to his early life. His twin sister was murdered several years ago, his mother vanished shortly thereafter leaving only a note, his father was expelled from the Foundation amid darkly ominous rumors about his research, and Simon himself has shown so little talent as a Foundation animist not a single mentor will take him on, leaving him relegated to working in the mailroom sorting requests for the Foundation’s aid from citizens and towns/cities. When the Foundation ignores a letter from a small asking for assistance against a dangerous monster, Simon takes it on himself to come to their aid, the first step on a journey that will find him an unexpected ally and change everything he knows about the Foundation, himself, his family, and his world.
In Cathedral of Bones (2020), A.J. Steiger has crafted a Lovecraftian MG/YA tale filled with tentacles, different planes of existence, elder gods, and mind-blowing cosmic powers, but grounded in a lovely and intimate coming-of-age story of friendship and family, sacrifice and forgiveness. Cathedral of Bones starts a little slowly, as we see some scenes of Simon’s childhood, jump ahead a few years to his time in the mail room, hear about his failures as an Animist (someone able to wield magical power), witness his interaction with a long-time bully, and watch as he makes his decision to face the monster on his own, meeting a young girl named Alice in the process. From that point on the story and the characterization really take off.
Simon is a character you can’t help but feel for thanks to the stacked deck against him (dead twin, cold father, abandoning mother, big bully), but Steiger makes him more than a simple sad sack to root for. As bits of his backstory and his personality are either slowly peeled away to reveal other layers, or as his personality changes to meet the circumstances, he becomes a richly developed character who goes in unexpected directions. The same can be said of Alice, as well as Simon’s father and mother (no real spoiler to say she reappears in the course of the story), if to somewhat lesser extent thanks to less page time/internal POV.
The worldbuilding is sufficient, if a bit thin (or perhaps, since we’re in MG/YA territory, concise is a better word) and sometimes, with regard to Foundation history and the explanations of magic, a bit bluntly explained through somewhat clumsy exposition. The literal world-building, however — the descriptions of the different planes of existence and their inhabitants — are fantastically (as in both meanings of the word: high praise and unreal) portrayed, with wonderfully vivid descriptions that will awe and/or disturb the reader and show a clear homage to Lovecraft.
Plot, after that afore-mentioned slower start, moves along smoothly and apace. Some aspects of Cathedral of Bones are a bit predictable, though I’m sure less so for the target younger audience. Steiger does a good job on multiple occasions of creating tension and suspense (a nice balance to the more predictable parts), not simply in scenes of violence (or potential violence) but also in moments of possible revelation and, in true Lovecraftian methodology, existential dread.
Thematic questions are thoughtfully handled and relatively sophisticated (excluding the bully): how does one move on from trauma/grief, can one be redeemed after a horrific act (and where’s the sliding scale, if so?), can a lie ever be more ethical than the truth, what does it mean to be “truly” human, what is our significance in the greater universe and how does our understanding of that affect our actions, is family more important than friendship, are friends truly more important than strangers, is it moral to sacrifice few for many, and more. Not only are these, as noted, thoughtfully handled, but they also build to powerfully emotional scenes as well.
Though labeled MG, Cathedral of Bones in many ways is more YA. That’s not to say Middle Graders wouldn’t enjoy it, but some aspects may elude them. Older younger readers (to use a seeming oxymoron) might find parts of the book a bit thin but will probably enjoy the more substantive questions. And while it reads young and isn’t really therefore an “adult” book, it does have some crossover appeal for genre readers. I certainly enjoyed it as a quick read even if it didn’t offer the full richness of experience I expect from works for adults. The book does resolve its main plotlines, but it’s easy to see how Steiger could return to this world and these characters, a return journey I think most of its readers would encourage. An easy recommendation therefore for MG and YA readers and for those adults who might take an extra day or two to read it themselves (carefully) before giving it as a gift.
It’s o my reading list. =)