California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout is the first in a new urban fantasy series that takes place in California. In the world of California Bones osteomancy is the form magic takes as power if gained through distilling and consuming the bones of other creatures. Daniel Blackland, the son of a famous osteomancer was present when his father was killed by the powerful Hierarch of Southern California (I’ll leave to your imagination exactly how he was killed). Daniel escaped and was raised in the underworld of Los Angeles where he has survived through his wits and using just enough of the magic his father taught him so as to stay beneath the Heirarch’s radar. When his estranged criminal mentor contacts him for one last job Daniel assembles an Ocean’s 11 style magical team to rob the heart of the Hierarch’s magical kingdom, the La Brea Tar Pits.
There is an underlying sense of originality in California Bones. Van Eekhout presents a place and time that is familiar but transformed by the presence of magic. California is a land unto itself, no longer a part of the United States, a land with its own laws. The strangeness of the familiar sights and sounds of Los Angeles particularly the juxtaposition of modern technology and a sort of Old World vibe makes for an intriguing read. Van Eekhout doesn’t really delve into the rest of the world, though there is some acknowledgement of the greater world and even modern science, and I am definitely curious as to what is going on elsewhere.
While Daniel is the primary protagonist I found that the real star of the show was a character introduced later. A distant cousin to the Hierarch, Gabriel is something of an antagonist in the story but as a sort of a middle manager within the political structure of the Hierarchy he isn’t quite the villain that The Hierarch and his primary lieutenants are. Gabriel enlists the aid of Max, a prisoner turned into a hound used to sniff out magic users. Max isn’t even supposed to have a name and his fatalistic attitude, he was slated for execution, plays nicely against Gabriel’s laid back nature. The back and forth between Gabriel and Max, as well of Gabriels delicate maneuvers within the delicate political quagmire of the Hiearchy were as entertaining as the heist action. Daniels side of the story unfolds in the familiar pattern of most heist stories: gather the crew, plan the job, and execute the job. It is through Daniel’s side of the story that the reader comes to best understand the nature of the magical world. Van Eekhout crafts an anything is possible atmosphere while somehow simultaneously setting tangible limits on just what magic can do. Daniels comes with a lot of personal baggage both in the form of his family history and his connections to the crew he assembles and Van Eekhout manages to convey a sense of growth, even if it is somewhat reluctant, on Daniel’s part as the story progresses.
California Bones might take a familiar format but the world its set in his wholly original. Van Eekhout has a keen sense of character that helps ease readers into the world. The novels is fast paced, perhaps a bit too fast, and Van Eekhout doesn’t tend to linger too long on any one scene. Reading California Bones is sort of like sightseeing via high-speed train; it gets you where you’re going, is pretty damn thrilling, but you only catch glimpses of some other amazing things as flit by the window. California Bones is a novel that stands nicely on its but thankfully Van Eekhout will be returning to this weird world in the forthcoming Pacific Fire.