With a mix of Lovecraftian sensibility meets film noir, Greg van Eekhout gives us an interesting tale in California Bones. The backdrop is Los Angeles but it is far from the reality of today. Instead, LA of Eekhout’s imagining feels like old Hollywood with a magic twist. Magic is simply a fact of life, you either have the ability to use it or you use the many natural artifacts that are lying across the country. The magical story which unfolds is an interesting ride.
When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.
When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.
Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch’s storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian’s sword, an object of untold power.
For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There’s Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel’s ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.
The best way for me to describe California Bones is by using a mix of video games. For me, it was like a Call of Cthulhu standalone scenario mixed with Grand Theft Auto and L.A Noir. For the non-gamers out there, this means that it had a very natural magic element with several unknown entities at play while criminals pull off heists with an air of a time long past. This was just my kind of mix and Eekhout carried it off well. The plot was certainly the driving force, making up for it when other elements were lacking.
One such lacking element was character development. There are two characters POVs and the primary character simply fell flat. Daniel is, plainly put, a coward who could have an interesting life if he stopped pining for his ex and some ridiculous notion of a white picket fence in his future. Eekhout bestows upon Daniel some pretty awesome powers and a past that he is constantly running away from. Unfortunately, while I see that he was meant to be the reluctant hero, I simply found Daniel to be irritating. He wasn’t likeable due to a lot of internal whining and an air of indecisiveness. Despite Daniel, I quite liked Gabriel, the other person we see pov from. Gabriel is a true grey character. The reader doesn’t quite know which side he’s fighting for nor how he relates to Daniel. However, we quickly realize through Gabriel’s actions that he is much more knowledgeable than people give him credit for. He manages to consistently play for himself and has his own unique moral compass, two things that I find relatable and interesting in a character. The other characters are a bit underwhelming except for the two old power players who come across as ancient mobsters.
The other aspects of California Bones which I found bothersome were Eekhout’s lack of detail until the end. Physical descriptions don’t happen until nearly the last time we see that character and other visual cues can be few and far between. In addition to this, Eekhout jumps time and perspective at inopportune times, making for a narrative that is oftentimes muddled.
Despite my grievances, there are a lot of details which really make the story come alive. California is split into two kingdoms and isn’t a part of the United States. Disney makes a cameo as an evil man who uses magic to make people unnaturally happy in order to fuel Southern California. This concept is taken a step further when we learn that Daniel’s brand of magic gains power from consumption. Plainly put, the big baddie in California Bones actually eats other mages. There are even more tidbits of things that are evil like human slaves which are treated like dogs, smelling out magic ingredients and loyalty potions to ensure that those around you follow your every word.
It is all of these details which made California Bones interesting. I ultimately found the ending to make the entire story more entertaining even I had to suffer through the middle portion. I would really like to see what else Eekhout creates especially if he can bring the detail of the end to the entire story.