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- Author: Greg Van Eekhout
- Publisher: Tor Publishing
- Book Genre: Urban Fantasy/Heist Crime
- Format: Hardback, 304 pages
Book Review: California Bones
You Are the Magic You Eat
By Chuck Francisco
June 05, 2014
California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout
© Tor Publishing
California Bones is quite simply the most engaging book I've read over the last six months, possibly the year. This is doubly amazing after noting that it's no less than the third magical heist story I've consumed in the past month alone (the others being Mary Robinette Kowal's Valor and Vanity and Jim Butcher's Skin Game, of the Dresden Files series). Those other works are no slouches in either the narrative voice or creative imagineering sections, yet over the course of fewer pages California Bones author Greg Van Eekhout (Norse Code) manages to pack in so many intriguing ideas that I'm already clamoring to dive back into the dirty canal waterways of his alternate LA for a reread.
Magical ability in Van Eekhout's new reality is obtained by consuming the remains of a creature who possessed the desired power. Cooking and eating fossilized spine of kraken properly yields the ability to throw force lightning (without all those pesky dark side shenanigans). The bones of a fire drake may confer resistance to extreme heat or fire breath. In the modern day kingdom of Southern California, imagine that the La Brea tar pits are tapped out of legendary creature fossils. Where then would the all powerful and seemingly ageless Hierarch and his close circle of opulent ruler barons obtain the bones of magical creatures to fuel their endless quest for magical perfection? By consuming other magic users (call 'Osteomancers' here) of course. This serves two imperatives: it culls the second tier threats to the Hierarch's power by eliminating them before they break through onto his level, and it serves to filter all of the consumed magical energy upward toward him.
One such culling occurs when our protagonist, Daniel Blackland, is only six. His father is quite high up in the magical research and development echelons, and he's been labeled a threat. Only the rash experimentation which his father has subjected him to saves Daniel from death, but his father is consumed raw on the living room floor by the Hierarch himself. Flash forward many years to Daniel as a grown man. Having been raised by his crime lord uncle Otis to be the ultimate heist leader, he's led a life of mostly petty crime and non distinction. He's down on his luck when Otis brings him back in for one last job: an insurmountably magnificent job to steal his father's most prized experiment from the maximum security vault of the Hierarch.
Daniel assembles his team, which includes a shapeshifting illusionist, a wound regenerating muscle man, and a master thief, then begins to plan the con. In the spirit of all the best heist fiction, there are actually several mini-capers as the team work to acquire the necessary items to make their main objective possible. The tone here is pitch perfect, and the setting harkens back to the pulp crime novels of the 40's and 50's. There's a serious Donald Westlake vibe permeating the narrative, which should thoroughly please crime fiction aficionados to the core.
And then there's this superbly realized alternate reality Southern California, a setting drastically modified by the courses of magical history, and yet strikingly similar enough to strike nostalgia notes much the same ways L.A. Noire and Gangster Squad do. Cars are not commonplace here, instead the system of canalways provide boat transit nearly everywhere. Landmarks like the Griffith Observatory (in many films, but most famous featured in Rebel Without a Cause staring James Dean) are compelling woven into the narrative's backdrop. Historical luminaries pop up in severely different context, such as an aged and haggard Walt Disney as one of the Hierarch's cronies who used illusion magic to create the amazing movies which we're familiar with. This is just one example of the fun Van Eekhout has in teasing the threads of reality into the fabrics of his universe.
The nagging questions which you need to ask yourself are: Do you enjoy heist capers? Do you dig imaginative alternative fiction with a creative flare for the nostalgic? Are you always on the lookout for new and inventive magic systems in your fiction? Are you looking for a book to completely suck you in for the duration? If you answered with a 'maybe' or 'perhaps' to even one of these then California Bones is the book for you. It does everyone one of the aforementioned things with relish and gusto, while casting an engrossing charm to ensnare the attention. I can't wait to see where Van Eekhout takes the world from here.
California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout is comes out on June 10 from Tor Books for $24.99. Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Shock-O-Rama, which looks into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.