(Our reviews may contain spoilers for the previous novel, California Bones.)
Pacific Fire is the second book in Greg van Eekhout’s OSTEOMANCY series. The first one, California Bones, was the story of Daniel Blackland, son of a powerful osteomancer in a magical southern California. If California Bones charted the fate of Daniel, Pacific Fire belongs almost entirely to Sam, Daniel’s foster son.
At the end of California Bones, Daniel met Sam, who was then about six years old. Ten years have passed, and Daniel and Sam have led an on-the-run existence. Meanwhile, in the magic Kingdom of Los Angeles, (Yes, I did write “magic kingdom” on purpose), ace bureaucrat and water-mage Gabriel Argent becomes aware of a scheme to bring to life a long-extinct firedrake, a Pacific dragon. To do this, the conspirators need a powerful store of osteomantic magic — someone like Sam, who is believed to be the most powerful osteomancer living.
The most exciting thing about this series is van Eekhout’s intriguing magical system, where magicians gain power by eating the flesh, organs, or, best of all, bones of magical creatures. The “second tier” in the process involves magical cannibalism; an osteomancer eating another osteomancer, thus consuming all of the victim’s power. Daniel would make a feast for an osteomancer. Sam would be a banquet rating a Michelin star.
Sam, though, is also a teenaged boy, trying to figure out his place in the world. He doesn’t want to be sheltered and protected by Daniel any longer. When circumstances split up the duo, Sam decides he will be the one to stop the firedrake project, and plans a trip to Catalina Island, aided by a young woman named Em, who is trained in fighting and insurgency tactics.
I had some quibbles with the world-building in this go-round. Northern and Southern California seceded from the USA at some point, and broke into separate kingdoms. They are now engaged in a cold war at least, although it’s been a shooting war in the recent past. Daniel and Sam were apparently hiding in the Northern Kingdom, yet getting back across the armed border proves no problem for either of them.
Sam visits the San Andreas Abyss. Obviously this is the San Andreas Fault, and the vision of it changed due to magic is wonderful, but it brought up another question for me. In Pacific Fire, we see temples raised to members of the osteomantic Council of Six. We don’t see any synagogues, mosques or Christian churches. Do those belief systems exist? The name “San Andreas” (Or “Los Angeles” for that matter) implies a Spanish, Catholic influence on California’s history, but since I don’t know at what point people learned about the power of magical bones, I don’t know what that means. It appears that at some point the Hierarch supplanted holidays like Christmas with ones of his own, but that’s not completely spelled out. I don’t think I would need much; one or two more sentences would settle these questions for me.
I know I’m inconsistent, though, because van Eekhout has also named the canals that are the thoroughfares of LA after the existing freeways; the 405, the 101 and so on. Instead of confusing me, that made me laugh.
The story does not exactly end on a cliffhanger, but many elements are left for the third book (Dragon Coast), and at times things happened without much foundation, especially Sam’s final decision at the end. I thought that Sam sounded a lot like Daniel, and I wanted a little more differentiation there. That’s not to say I didn’t love the banter between Em and Sam, most especially a discussion involving the word “lolly-gag.”
On the plus side, Pacific Fire deftly introduces a thread of moral ambiguity in Sam and Daniel’s relationship. What makes the ambiguity interesting is that it is a direct result of the magical system; the true consequence of this form of magic. We also meet some characters from Daniel’s past. They are dealt with briskly, but one of them has the potential to make Dragon Coast even more compelling.
Master bureaucrat Gabriel Argent and his partner Max are favorite characters of mine. Argent is frequently Daniel’s adversary, and his goals do not match Daniel’s, but I like the way he thinks. Gabriel understands that the flow of a bureaucracy is a study in power, and he manipulates it perfectly. On the other hand, as he says himself, he is a little too hands-on to be completely successful. It will be interesting to see what happens to him as the trilogy continues.
Pacific Fire is a solid entry in the OSTEOMANCY series, expanding the world, addressing some of the consequences of the events that took place in California Bones, and positioning us well for Dragon Coast. I have to love a book that has an underwater craft made from a sea-serpent skeleton, and a Justin-Bieber-like pop star who smokes powdered griffin bone to mellow out. Everything great about California Bones is here, and there is an added layer of suspense and danger by the end. Enjoy!
Pacific Fire is Greg van Eekhout’s sequel to California Bones, and like its predecessor, it falls solidly into the heist/caper subgenre of fantasy. I gave California Bones a 3.5, calling it a fun read, and fans of the first will find the second at least equally enjoyable (I actually liked Pacific Fire a little bit more), while those who have been wary of starting a new trilogy should rest assured they won’t regret this one. In case you’ve forgotten, Eekhout’s magic system of osteomancy is based upon the ingestion of the bones of mystical creatures (or the digestion of those who have eaten the bones), which instills the consumer with magical power.
A decade has passed since the events of California Bones, and Daniel Blackland has been on the run ever since, trying to keep himself and Sam, his 16-year-old ward that he’d rescued as a young boy, alive in the face of constant pursuit from those seeking power after the Hierarch’s fall. The biggest of those include: Otis, Daniel’s old crime boss and current mortal enemy; Gabriel Argent, the Hierarch’s great-nephew, now a powerful water-mage and semi-ally of Daniel’s; and Sister Tooth, a ruthlessly strong osteomancer. Los Angeles has been torn by turf battles since Daniel killed the Hierarch and ate half his heart, but now Otis has proposed a grand triumvirate among the three most powerful leaders, a triumvirate bolstered by the creation of the ultimate weapon — a recreated Pacific Firedrake. And to power this weapon, they need a source of great power, specifically Sam, the Hierarch’s golem.
The caper aspect of the novel, then, is the attempt to break into the site of the dragon’s creation and destroy it before it “goes live.” But rather than just repeat the formula of his first book, van Eekhout broadens his purview. Thanks to Sam being an adolescent male who has been on the run his whole life and protected by his uber-paranoid guardian (with good reason as we see on multiple occasions), the novel also becomes a coming-of-age story and by separating the two early on, van Eekhout offers up two plots that differ in their foundation and tone, only to come together satisfactorily toward the end. Pacific Fire also ratchets up the emotional impact, which is one of the reasons I liked it a bit better than California Bones.
Sam’s story also adds a fun new character, Em, whom readers of book one will recognize (kind of), and whose banter with Sam brings some welcome humor into the book. As does Daniel’s old buddy Moth, who also adds a bit of meta-fiction when after one back and forth he notes, “I don’t like buddy movies.”
Other characters from California Bones also reappear in fine form, as Daniel’s old team reforms, but we also see some characters from his deeper past, as well as get introduced in brief but effective fashion to new ones (one of my favorites being Mother Cauldron in a fun little scene). As mentioned, Gabriel Argent is one of the familiar faces, and I wish he had some more page time, as there’s a lot to like about his character: his unique perspective on things, his different type of magic (water magic rather than osteomancy), his relationship with is aide-de-camp Max.
The world-building remains both a plus and a minus, in that I really like the near-miss aspect of this alternate world, where L.A.’s transportation system is via canal rather than the infamous highways. On the other hand, parts still remain a bit befuddling. And as with California Bones, the ending felt a bit rushed and not quite wholly earned, or at least set up. But Pacific Fire easily overcomes these minor issues, leaving me looking forward to what happens in the third book.