Chris Evan received some buzz for his Iron Elves series and in 2013 released a nonfiction title Bloody Jungle: The War in Vietnam; a photographic history of the Vietnam War. It is this last title that leads most directly into Of Bone and Thunder a novel which reads as a sort of fantastical reimagining of the Vietnam War. There are many aspects of Of Bone and Thunder that work and when the novel is firing on all cylinders it is an entertaining and enthralling read that stands toe to toe with much of the military fiction (both fantastical and not) that came before it. However, it also a novel held back by the aspects that don’t quite work.
My primary concern of Of Bone and Thunder is its lack of focus. There are roughly three main threads of the narrative that of the patriotic Thaum Jawm Rathim, the soldier Carny and his squad, and the Thaum Breeze and the Rag driver Vorly. While the broad focus on these three narratives helps to increase the scope of the novel and provide a more complete picture of the different aspects of the war they also make it difficult to form an emotional connection with the characters. While Evans details the war effort from the ground, from the air, and through Jawm indicates the perception of war on the home front the focus remains on the experiences of the characters in the story and readers are only ever privy to what the characters know never more. So while Evans does hint at bigger currents running through the military and political landscape of the novel those hints never truly mature into anything. The weakest part of the story for me was the tale of Carny and his squad. It was perhaps the most familiar part of the story and the Vietnam analogues were perhaps a bit too on the nose. Evans’ attention to Jawm’s patriotic idealism and its slow degradation over the course of the novel felt a bit more solid and while not necessarily fresh ground still felt like more fertile ground for the story. This is doubly so for the Dragon (Rag) driver Vorly and his new sorceress (Thaum) co-rider Breeze. Evans hits it out of the park with the Dragons in this novel walking a thin line between the notion of dragons as beasts of burden and as so tough as to be sort of machine-like; their maintenance and upkeep not dissimilar to planes or helicopters. The relationship between Vorly and Breeze is also handled nicely as the use of magic as a communication method between Dragons is new. It provides an interesting complication and Vorly’s struggle to adapt to the presence of not just to a thaum but a female thaum make these chapters easy to engage with. Evans even manages to work into a bit of a relationship triangle once Jawm steps into the mix. The characterization of Jawm, Vorly, and Breeze just felt more original than the sort of stereotypical roles and personalities that were assigned to Carny and the squad.
Of Bone and Thunder is an interesting novel that stands well on its own. I’m not clear on whether it is the start of a series or not but I’d definitely be interesting in seeing more. Of Bone and Thunder is by no means a perfect novel but it succeeds far more often then it fails. By and large Evans tells a massive story that manages to transport the reader into a jungle hellhole and walk them back out again; though not unchanged. Of Bone and Thunder is a stand out novel that fantasy fans looking for something a bit different should definitely give a shot.