There’s a point almost exactly halfway through Sarah Beth Durst’s latest novel, The Bone Maker (2021), where the author teases us that the book we’ve been reading just might go in a completely different direction, prompting me to write in my notes, “Love this.” And then, well, it didn’t. Instead, as if the inertia were too great, we’re shortly steered back into a well-worn fantasy story, which, despite being mostly satisfying — with some moments that rose above that level and a few that pulled it below — had me wishing I could have gone back to that moment fifty-three percent of the way in and chosen the plot less traveled.
Twenty-five years ago, Kreya led her crew of magic-users (husband Jentt and friends Zera, Stran, and Marso) to victory in the Bone War, when an evil bone maker illegally used human bones to create an army of nearly unkillable constructs. Jentt died in that victory, and the others scattered, mostly losing touch with one another. Unbeknownst to her friends, though, Kreya has been using Elkor’s spells to resurrect her husband periodically for a limited time. Having run out of bones, though, Kreya looks up her old friend Zera and convinces her to return to the battlefield (now a Forbidden Zone) to recover more. There, they discover that Elkor may in fact not be dead, leading them to gather the team once more to try and save the world yet again.
The premise is a positive beginning for a few reasons. One, I like the morally grey area Durst places us in from the very beginning, and that grey permeates the novel, with Durst never letting us forget just how questionable some of the characters’ choices are. She even offers up a backstory for the “dark wizard” that draws a line, if a crooked one, between Elkor and Kreya, one that makes both Kreya and the reader none too comfortable. The idea of a job unfinished, if not wholly original, is still more fresh than the usual plucky-band-of-heroes-facing-evil storyline. Here, the execution is a bit more mixed, with Durst sometimes doing a nice job of showing how these characters aren’t the same as their younger selves, within themselves or in their relationships to each other and the wider world. On the other hand, this aspect didn’t seem fully mined for its potential, and outside of a few throwaway lines, I never really had a sense of the true weight of age/experience on these characters.
The characters themselves vary in their depth. Kreya and Zera are fully fleshed out, both as individuals and in terms of their relationship. The others, though, are relatively two-dimensional, more types than people: strong family man, tortured soul, etc. And the antagonist, who as noted is given a complicating background, is a pretty off-the-shelf bad guy.
This same issue extends to other aspects of the book. Bone magic is an interesting concept, but is simplistically portrayed, conveniently useful or not depending on plot and with little detailed sense of limitation or craft. Worldbuilding is sufficient to the story but bare bones. And there is an ease to events and possible traumatic events that doesn’t feel fully earned, or feels as if we’re just skimming along a safe surface. At one point, given the slight nature of many of the elements, I checked to see if it was a YA book, as it had that sort of overall feel to it (I don’t believe it is, but I can’t swear to that). Other aspects were more problematic than simply being thin: a number of times logistics of time, distance, or action were somewhat muddy or questionable enough to pull me out of the story; several moments were implausible in their action or inaction, and the ending was more than a little anticlimactic.
In the end, these issues were, if not outweighed, at least balanced by the fluid nature of Durst’s prose, the easy, often humorous banter/dialog amongst the crew, some moving emotional moments, by Zera’s vibrant character, and by the aforementioned moral complexity lying at the core of the story. The Bone Maker is a solid novel, but I sure would have liked to read that other one Durst hinted at partway through.
I enjoyed Sarah Beth Durst’s The Bone Maker quite a lot — I think Durst handles her “old heroes join back up to right some wrongs and save the day when no one else can” story well, balancing past trauma and present stress while giving her heroes plenty of opportunities to make new mistakes and apply decades of experience to potential solutions.
Her world-building is immersive, as always, and the inter-personal relationships are fully realized. I completely understand why Zera, Stran, Jentt, and Marso would follow Kreya’s commands, and I also understand why she trusts each of them implicitly.
While the resolutions to various plot twists and the actual conclusion didn’t always surprise me, the narrative follows an extremely satisfying arc, and the ending hits all the right notes.
~ Jana Nyman