As a rule, I don’t like gambling. I don’t like taking chances on things that aren’t almost guaranteed to go my way, and I’m not especially fond of risking things that are important to me when the odds of me keeping them aren’t as close to a hundred percent as possible. I’ve played card games, of course, as a way of whiling away the time when I’m with family, but those were never for really high stakes: potato chips and candy, mostly, never money—no one likes losing money on something so risky as hand of cards, at least amongst my cousins, and when they choose to do so, it’s always in a very conservative, circumspect manner, the allowable risk already measured and minimised before the bets are placed and the cards dealt or the dice thrown.
The only gambling game I play, and on a fairly regular basis, is with books. Most of the time, I try to minimise the risks: I only read books that are recommended by my close friends and favourite authors, for instance, or try to look for reviews and ratings before deciding to settle on a book and forking out the money for it. But sometimes, a cover catches my eye, or something implied in the blurb on the back of a book makes me want to take a gamble, just go for it and see where and how I come out on the other side. I’ve made some fantastic discoveries this way, and I’ve also encountered some really terrible reads.
In the case of California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout, the first in his Daniel Blackland series, I took a risk because I’d heard some vague buzz on the Internet to the effect that it was really good, and because the concept looked interesting. It was, as it turned out, a risk well worth taking: California Bones turned out to be a really good read, with great characters, excellent world-building, and some very fine prose: dry and spare in a way that I hadn’t encountered in other urban fantasy books before. The fact that it was darker than a lot of other urban fantasy books, not because of the characters, but because of the nature of the magic itself, helped a lot too, as did the fact that it was, at its core, a heist novel.
So when I learned that the next book in the series, Pacific Fire, was going to come out in the last week of January 2015, I was extremely excited. I waited impatiently to finally get a copy and when I did I immediately tore into it, wanting to find out just what had happened since the events in the first book.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be exactly what I hoped it would be. I had gambled on Pacific Fire being an exciting continuation of what happened in California Bones, but that’s not quite what I got, and as a result, some of the shine that I’d seen in this series has worn off.
Pacific Fire is set ten years after the events of California Bones. Daniel is on the run with Sam, the Hierarch’s golem, protecting what is probably the most powerful source of osteomantic magic in the entire Southern Kingdom of California—a source who has grown into a young man, and whom Daniel cares for as if he were his own son. Sam, for his part, is grateful to Daniel for saving his life, for continuing to keep him safe, and for being the father he never had, but he’s beginning to chafe under Daniel’s restrictions, and at his own inability to be the osteomancer Daniel says he should be: that is, powerful and deadly enough to be even better than Daniel. But when they receive word from Gabriel Argent that old enemies are building an osteomantic super-weapon that could spell war and death for both Californias and maybe the rest of the world, they both know that they have to do something to stop it from happening. But the question is: will Daniel go it alone, or will Sam be able to make him see sense, and take him along?
First of all, I would like to say that I don’t particularly like the blurb the publishers chose to summarise the plot of the novel. It’s deceptive, in that it makes the reader assume that the novel will be told in first-person perspective with Sam telling the story, which is most certainly not the case: it’s still told from third-person limited, like California Bones was, and changes perspective from character to character, with a focus on Daniel and Sam. I also don’t like how the blurb gives away the fact that Daniel’s life is put in extreme danger in this novel: that’s just not something one spoils for the reader, in my opinion.
Another thing that didn’t help was how slow this book was to start. It might be argued that California Bones was slow to start as well, but at least there was a lot of other things going on in terms of character development and world-building. That’s not the case in Pacific Fire: Van Eekhout doesn’t really add more to the reader’s knowledge of the world as he’s envisioned it for his series, aside from perhaps expanding the landscape a little to include parts of California outside L.A., as well as including some interesting questions about what osteomancy can and can’t do.
It also doesn’t help that Van Eekhout’s prose doesn’t really work very well for the first three-fourths of the novel, when the action is slowest. It worked marvellously well in California Bones, keeping the action and descriptions sharp and clear and giving the book an overall cinematic feel, but none of that works in Pacific Fire. Instead, Van Eekhout’s style makes the entire first three-fourths of the novel feel draggy and unformed, doing nothing more than shoving the plot bodily forward in order to get to the more exciting bits in the latter fourth.
This slowness also doesn’t do much to cover for the fact that there’s not a lot of really good, in-depth characterisation being done. Never mind the already-established ones: characters like Daniel, Gabriel Argent, and Max were already fleshed out in the first book, and so there’s really not a lot of need to get to know them and develop them in this second novel. However, new characters like Sam definitely need to be developed, and while some work is done in that regard, I don’t think it’s quite enough. I didn’t feel any real attachment to Sam, which is a pity, because the reader should grow attached to him, should care about what happens to him, not because of his connection to Daniel, but because he is a character worth caring about in his own right. It wasn’t for want to trying: he has all the potential for being a really interesting character, given his background and the fact that he’s a young adult, but it’s really hard to feel anything more than mild interest in him and his activities, which is a pity, since he’s supposed to be one of the major characters of this novel.
I’m also not happy with the way some minor characters were handled, like the Bautistas and Carson. In the case of the Bautistas, I wasn’t happy with how they seemed to be nothing more than a means to get Sam and Em on the road, to give them the mobility they obviously need to continue on their journey. This is made even sadder because of what happens to Sofía, which ought to have been a punch in the reader’s gut, but doesn’t have the same emotional impact because there just hasn’t been any time to get really invested in her and her family. It’s stated that what she and her husband do for Em and Sam is dangerous, and a great sacrifice because of what they, as a family, stand to lose, but it’s hard to really embrace that emotion because the whole encounter with them is so brief and feels rather flat.
As for Carson, it’s a pity that he’s rather one-dimensional in his portrayal, because he’s the first character in the series thus far to represent that particular subset of humanity that most people would recognise as a “celebrity”. Van Eekhout had a great opportunity with this character to show, not only how the world of celebrity works in his version of California, but also to create an in-depth character study of what such a world can do to celebrities and how they tackle the usual problems that come with fame. But that’s not what happens: Carson is, like the Bautistas, a way to get the plot moving a bit more, to get Em and Sam from Point A to Point B. I found myself wishing that he hadn’t been included at all, because he turned out to be something of a waste; the plot point involving him would probably have been more exciting if he hadn’t been present, forcing Sam and Em to be more creative. At the very least, it would have helped reinforce the heist element of the whole novel.
As for the remaining one-fourth of the novel—the part that’s actually fun—that, at least, is a throwback to all that was good about the first novel: exciting, fast-paced, dangerous, and always that genuine feeling that nobody is really safe. It also revisits the gruesome nature of osteomancy, as well as throws the reader some interesting twists and revelations about Daniel, Sam, and the nature of the super-weapon being created. The ending is also pretty explosive, and leaves the reader dangling on a cliffhanger that promises a great deal of action in the next novel—one that will, hopefully, actually live up to the promises made in the latter fourth of this one.
Overall, Pacific Fire is something of a letdown: there is a lot of slogging the reader needs to get through in order to reach the properly exciting parts—the parts that bear a greater resemblance to the exceptional quality of the first novel. This is rather unfortunate, because the elements that make up that first three-fourths should, by rights, make for a really great read, but the writing feels muddled and slow and generally just half-baked. Characters with great potential are wasted, and plot points that could have been really exciting aren’t handled right at all. None of this is helped by Van Eekhout’s style, which just doesn’t work with the slower pace of the first three-fourths of this novel, making it feel sketched-out as opposed to cinematic. Hopefully the next book in the series sets everything to rights, because it would be a really great waste of a great concept and story if it didn’t.