Pacific Fire is Greg van Eekhout’s latest novel, a fast and slick sequel to last year’s California Bones. It situates itself in the same peculiar subgenre as California Bones, a subgenre so unusual that I find it difficult to think of many examples outside van Eekhout’s own work but one that nonetheless feels like a subgenre in its own right: the fantasy heist novel.
The heist story—the caper plot—is a thing unto itself. It often crops up in espionage thrillers or as part of some larger narrative. California Bones is a heist novel whose major focus is the heist itself. Pacific Fire combines elements of the heist with the more straightforward thriller narrative of bad things are going to happen and SOMEONE has to stop them.
(Some spoilers for the book ahead.)
Ten years have passed since the events of California Bones. Daniel Blackland has been on the run ever since eating half the heart of the Hierarch of Southern California. He’s been protecting himself, and Sam—a golem in the form of a small boy whom the Hierarch made from his own magic, a boy who has become essentially Daniel’s foster son—from various kinds of hunters and people who want to consume both their magics all this time, for they have been pursued during the whole decade. Sam is now a sixteen-year-old boy with a sixteen-year-old boy’s desires and impulses, and all he’s known is running and hiding under Daniel’s protection.
In Los Angeles, in a Southern California whose power has been diminished by the loss of its tyrant, the surviving powers—Otis, Daniel’s former guardian/nemesis; Sister Tooth, a powerful osteomancer; and Gabriel Argent, a very powerful water mage and the man to whom Daniel gave half the Hierarch’s heart—co-exist in a ongoing state of low-grade violent conflict, not quite amounting to outright war. When Otis draws them together in uneasy alliance by proposing the creation of an osteomantic weapon of mass destruction, a Pacific firedrake, Gabriel Argent decides to warn Daniel and to enlist him in an effort to destroy the firedrake before it can be completed. Once complete, the firedrake may well be unstoppable—and it needs a large source of magic to bring it to the point of completion. A source like Sam.
But before Daniel can get his old crew back together and take on this fresh challenge, he and Sam are attacked on the road by a new set of hunters, and Daniel is seriously injured. Sam manages to get Daniel to a safehouse run by the Emmas—a group of extremely competent women all called Emma—and decides that with Daniel out of commission, the task of destroying the firedrake falls to him. With the help of a young Emma—“Em”—he sets out for a city in which everyone wants to use or to consume him.
Fast, tense, and difficult to put down, Pacific Fire is nonetheless not a novel with a great deal of depth—unless one reads the osteomantic practice of consuming the bones and flesh of magical animals and other people as a commentary on Hollywood and modern capitalism, but that might be a stretch too far. Its protagonists are easy people with whom to sympathise, and it is above all fun. Its most interesting aspect remains its defiantly skewed worldbuilding. California has the same names as the world we know, but the presence of magic—in many cases batshit weird magic—means its history has got to be completely different. The magic feels like it belongs more to a second-world setting, but van Eekhout’s not afraid to put it in play in a context that you could still just about discuss as “contemporary” fantasy, creating a noteworthy tension of expectations. This isn’t the world we know, but it’s just familiar enough to make its weirdnesses stand out all the more strikingly—and that’s a pretty striking choice.
I enjoyed Pacific Fire. I look forward to seeing what van Eekhout does next.