Greg van Eekhout had already garnered some attention as a short-story writer before the publication of his 2009 California urban fantasy/Ragnarok novel Norse Code. Since then he’s written two books for younger readers, but nothing novel-length for the adult SFF market.
California Bones, the first novel in a new series from Tor, marks his return—and it’s a return with a bang. Part heist novel, part re-imagination of the possibilities of urban fantasy, it’s an immensely fun and compelling read.
Daniel Blackstone lives in a California that is very different to the California we know. It shares many of the same names, and even the same landmarks, but Daniel Blackstone’s California is divided into two kingdoms, northern and southern, and ruled by powerful osteomancers—magicians whose powers come from the bones of long-dead creatures, some mythical-to-us and some not.* And from the bones of other osteomancers. Southern California, including Los Angeles, is controlled by the Hierarch—a very old, ruthless, and powerful osteomancer, and one to whose attention Daniel must never come.
*This is not exactly a renewable or sustainable resource. Scarcity increases value.
Because Daniel’s father was a powerful osteomancer himself, one who experimented on Daniel. Daniel has magic in his bones. But since his father’s death in one of the Hierarch’s purges when Daniel was young, the authorities have believed he was also dead. He’s lived in LA’s margins: a thief, and a good one, raised by Otis—who seems to run LA’s underworld. But Daniel doesn’t work for Otis anymore…
Not, at least, until Otis approaches him with an opportunity that’s impossible to refuse: rob the Hierarch’s treasury, in which are stored powerful bones of all kinds. And a weapon made by Daniel’s father for Daniel himself, but taken by the Hierarch when he killed (and ate) the elder Blackstone. This is Daniel’s chance to get it back, and to make a shitload of money. Otis already has an inside (wo)man in the form of cagey osteomancer Emmaline Walker: all Daniel has to do is put together a crew, pull off the job, and not get caught.
Meanwhile, California bureaucrat Gabriel Argent, a distant relative of the Hierarch, discovers that Daniel’s not quite as dead as everyone has heretofore thought. Gabriel believes in making the world better through bureaucracy—he’s an unusual sympathetic sort, for a character who’s an office type in a repressive kingdom—and he thinks that Daniel’s out to assassinate the Hierarch. Gabriel lost his mother in the same purge that killed Daniel’s father, and that’s what Gabriel would do in his place. What Gabriel chooses to do about his discovery gets him involved in the political manoeuvrings of the kingdom, and puts his life at risk.
For all that, though, the core of California Bones is the caper plot, the heist story. And every good caper relies so much on unexpected obstacles, twists, and betrayals, that to discuss it in detail would spoil the fun. This is a good caper story: it scratches the same itch I used to get scratched by good episodes of Leverage and the better episodes of original-series Mission: Impossible. Van Eekhout knows how to keep the pacing fast and the tension highly-strung, the setbacks startling and the action sequences energetic.
And he’s pretty good at characters and banter, too. Daniel’s crew—Cassandra, his former lover, whose specialty is getting locks open; Moth, the muscle, practically unkillable; and Jo, shapeshifter, who can make herself look like anyone—are well-drawn, though we see very little of their interior lives. They’re loyal to each other, and to Daniel; they have pasts together and apart. And we eventually learn that it’s not friendship alone that binds them to Daniel…
There are only two niggling things that interfered with my enjoyment of this novel. The climactic action sequence feels a little rushed, the set of events leading up to it relying a little too much on everything working out in Daniel’s favour, for my satisfaction. That’s only a little annoying: the more annoying thing is that in a world where the course of history has clearly gone rather differently—we can see this in the public presence of magic and the fact that California is divided into two kingdoms, rather than being part of the USA—the names of certain people and places in L.A. are recognisable. That doesn’t make sense to me.
But both of these issues are fairly minor. California Bones is, on the whole, a fun and engaging read, with interestingly innovative magic world-building. And although I understand a sequel is forthcoming, this is a novel that reads as complete in itself.
If you like a good caper, you should definitely check it out.