California Bones by Greg van Eekhout

“When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.

When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.

Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch’s storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian’s sword, an object of untold power.

For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There’s Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel’s ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.”

This story takes place in an alternate version of California, one where mythic creatures once roamed and lost their lives in the La Brea tar pits. Along with these beasts comes a unique power: the ability to distill and ingest the magic in their bones. This power, osteomancy, lies at the heart of this novel. It hearkens to shamanistic rituals, and I have to admit that the setting seemed to have more than a touch of the untamed mixed with the modern. One thing that remains the same, though, is the struggle over power, not just magical power, but the kind brought by money and control of resources. As in our world, water is a huge issue; unique to this fictional world, control of bones and their magic plays just a big a part.

The heist portions of the book are a fun read. The author uses this part of the plot to highlight some of the magic he’s created. He does so by featuring magical traps, people who are strong in certain kinds of magic that get in the way of our thieves, and the black market for products made from bones of mythic animals. It’s also fun to read about the thieves themselves—each has some ability that is unique to them. The most interesting of those is Moth, who was accidentally given the power to heal from any wound, even one that causes death.

Van Eekhout leaves lots of intriguing hints about this California’s political and historical past, and it’s a story that I hope is explored in a future volume. There’s certainly room for at least one more book, and I hope it gets written. Some of this history seems like a sly poke at current California politics, with the split between Northern and Southern California and the haggling over water. As a native Californian, that gave me a snicker.

Clocking in at only 300 pages, this is a slim and trim story that doesn’t have any padding. I enjoyed how the author didn’t waste the reader’s time with too much “flavor text” or excess action that doesn’t serve the plot. The novel marches forward and packs a ton of story into the room it has. Too many authors would have expanded the book to the point of losing reader interest, but this isn’t the case with California Bones.

I sure hope Van Eekhout continues with this story. I like Daniel and his team, and I really want to know more about the world, especially what’s up with Northern California (hey, that’s where I live, I can’t help but want to see that). California Bones is a rare beast, one that cooks up a truly unique form of magic and serves it up for your enjoyment.

This review was originally posted on July 14, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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