Urban fantasy is, to me, a fascinating and enjoyable genre, an extension of my own childhood musings of what it might be like if the creatures of fairytales and myths still walked the Earth in spite of the hyper-technological landscape we humans have created. Even more interesting, what if they had adapted, and do not hide out in the last pockets of minimally or completely untouched spaces of the world, but right in the heart of the city? What if they, literally, walked amongst us, and we were none the wiser?
That is, I think, the basic premise of any work of urban fantasy, though levels of secrecy can vary from the magical side of things being a part of everyday life, to it being something that’s kept secret from those who aren’t either born into it, practice it, or stumble upon it through some strange twist of fate. Eveything else, however, tends to vary: the world building, in particular. Urban fantasies are generally set in cities (as implied by the name of the genre), but while most are set in the present, juxtaposing magic with cellphones and the Internet, others are set in the past (as in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy, set in the world of the ancient Aztec empire). But ancient or modern, it is the setting of the city that is most important, the urban environment playing a vital role in defining the genre.
Occasionally, though, one comes upon an urban fantasy novel that leans a bit more on the “fantasy” side of things, reshaping the world itself to suit a premise the author created. The setting is still, to a degree, familiar to the reader, but it is also changed because of some point of world building the author has decided to impose upon the milieu of their story. This is what Greg Van Eekhout has done for his novel California Bones, the first in his Daniel Blackland series.
In a Los Angeles that is the same as the one that exists, although not quite the same, either, Daniel Blackland, an osteomancer, makes a living as a thief. He lives under the dark shadow of the Hierarch, undisputed ruler of the Kingdom of Southern California and said to be one of, if not the most, powerful osteomancers anywhere in the world. That power, however, is founded upon a very dark, very brutal past—a past that nearly got Daniel killed when the Hierarch came after Daniel’s father, Sebastian Blackland, and ate him for his osteomantic powers.
Daniel wants nothing more than to leave his past—and Los Angeles—behind. However, he can’t do that without money, and so he accepts a job to break into the Ossuary, the Hierarch’s secret storage space for all the magical materials he needs to hold his power over his kingdom. Within the Ossuary is Sebastian Blackland’s sword: a powerful osteomantic weapon that Daniel intends to retrieve. Together with his friends—a team of thieves with various unique talents—and guided by the mysterious Emma, they prepare to break into the Hierarch’s most heavily-guarded resource, and cross their fingers that they make it out alive.
The first notable thing about this novel is, obviously, the world building. Van Eekhout has build a very interesting alternate universe, wherein Los Angeles is dominated by canals and magic is worked by consuming bones and other body parts. Despite that difference, though, Los Angeles feels the same: that same hunger of power; for fame and celebrity; and the illusory and interconnected nature of both, dominate the atmosphere of Van Eekhout’s L.A.as much as it dominates the real L.A.
However, unlike in the real L.A., it is magic that is the driving force in Van Eekhout’s version of the city, and the most important kind of magic is called osteomacy. Osteomancy, as it is described in the novel, means consuming bones and flesh and fluids from living and formerly-living entities in order to absorb their magical effects and work them oneself. The book goes into more detail than that, and makes clear the underlying logic and structure of how the system works. But osteomancy, for all its power, has some very interesting limits: specifically, one to do with resources. A running theme in the novel is that the magic is running out—well, not the magic itself, specifically, but the resources needed to make it. Characters regularly comment on how the La Brea Tar Pits—once a prime resource for ancient magical bones—have been all but stripped, and therefore the government has to resort to importing the material from elsewhere. The Hierarch is also hoarding materials in his Ossuary to ensure he doesn’t run out of supply for himself and for those he favours, but for everyone else, they’re going to have to make-do—which is why Daniel and his cohorts are able to make a living in the first place, because if a valuable resource is not readily available, a black market for said resources will spring into existence. In Van Eekhout’s version of the world, magical resources are treated very much the way our world treats oil, or illegal drugs—something any keen reader will pick up on.
I also like the need to actually consume the magical material in question is what creates the magic in the first place. Most of the time, the material being eaten is not objectionable: fluids, for instance, or pieces of bone. However, it does create opportunities for some very macabre scenes or suggested scenarios, and Van Eekhout does not hesitate to take those opportunities where he feels they are needed. They’re not gratuitous, in my opinion, because they do serve a purpose, whether to develop a character, push the story onwards, or both, but some people might find them troubling to read about.
What I thoroughly enjoy about the concept of osteomancy, though, is that Van Eekhout does nothing to hide the fact that it is a dangerous, deadly, and moreover, greedy kind of magic. There is nothing beautiful or kind or gentle about it: it is harsh, hard, and painful, and only those who are willing to pay the price can become masters of the art. Unfortunately, mastering osteomancy forces people to make some very hard choices—or very easy ones, depending on whether or not one has a conscience. Power, osteomantic or otherwise, is like any commodity, and it can be traded—or killed for.
The characters that inhabit this world are quite interesting, if not as developed as I might like. Daniel himself is written well enough, as is his opposite number/foil, but I think the main antagonist and supporting characters could have used a bit more development than what they were given. While I like Daniel’s friends well enough just the way they are written, it would have been lovely to get to know them a bit better, beyond their connection to Daniel. Some of that is explored, but I would have liked a lengthier look at them than what the novel gave me. Emma, also, would have been interesting to know about, not least because of who she really is.
As for the antagonists, I would have really liked to get to know the Hierarch better, since he strikes me as a character with a lot of potential for nuance. While it’s always possible that he did what he did in the novel just for the sake of power, I like to think that it was more than just that. A nuanced antagonist is always more interesting than a straightforward villain, and I would have liked a deeper exploration of the Hierarch’s motivations and machinations beyond what was given in the novel.G
The one thing I can’t complain about, though, in terms of characterisation, is that the characters are racially diverse. Daniel himself is only half-white, and physically appears Latin American or Native American, while his friends are a mix of Latin American, African-American, and Native American (possibly Asian, too, but the character in question is a shape-shifter and so it’s difficult to pin down their racial background). Only a handful of characters are confirmed to be white, and most of them are on the antagonists’ side. I appreciate how Van Eekhout tries to capture the racial diversity of Los Angeles, and of the United States in general; it’s high time writers in all genres realised that it is vitally important to write a racially-diverse cast of characters, especially when writing stories set in an urban environment.
The plot, like the characters, is interesting, but a little thin on the ground—not too thin as to prove uninteresting, but not thick enough to really make me happy. This is a heist novel, after all, and I like a good, long, twisty plot to go along with the idea (please refer to The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch to understand just how twisty a heist plot can get). If the plot had been a bit thicker, and if the character development had been expanded upon, I think it would have made the ending of the novel a bit more satisfying to read.
But the most notable thing about this novel is Van Eekhout’s prose. Unlike the other urban fantasies I’ve read before, his writing is spare, and rather dry—kind of like the landscape of L.A. itself, where it isn’t cultivated and landscaped. Scenes that would, in the hands of another writer, take maybe two pages or more to play out, Van Eekhout manages to condense in a page and a half without losing any of the impact. Other readers have described his writing as “cinematic,” and I agree: his is a very refreshing contrast to the occasionally-overwrought writing one finds in other urban fantasy novels, and is the main reason why I think this novel is as good as it is.
However, his sparingness is also probably to blame for the thinness of plot and character development I’ve already mentioned. Again, I would like to emphasise that this is not all that bad a thing, and that I do think Van Eekhout has done a splendid job on the whole, but I do hope that the next novel in the series turns out to be a much longer, more involved, and more revelatory read than this one.
Overall, California Bones is a great new take on urban fantasy: something that lies between what one usually thinks of as urban fantasy, and a slightly-dystopian alternative history. The magic system for osteomancy is relatively simple and straightforward but it is also brutal and disturbing, thus breeding a world equally brutal and disturbing at its core. The characters are racially diverse, and the protagonist is interesting to read about, though the supporting characters and the villain could stand to be a bit more nuanced and developed. The same can be said for the plot, which could stand to be a bit thicker and a bit more twisty. However, Van Eekhout’s spare prose makes for excellent reading, especially in comparison to some of the more overwrought novels currently available, though it might be the main reason for the issues about character development and plot that I just mentioned. Hopefully, Van Eekhout will turn out a more substantial story in the next novel for this series, which I am now very definitely looking forward to.