California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout. ★★★1/2
I’ve been interested in getting my hands on this ever since I heard it was a fantasy heist story. I love fantasy. I love heist stories. What could be better than the two combined?
I do wish someone had warned me about the cannibalism. So here’s your warning – there’s cannibalism.
When Daniel Blackland was twelve, he saw his father killed by the Hierarch of Southern California, the tyrannical and all powerful magic user who rules the Kingdom of Southern California. The back blurb actually says “devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones” so I really should have guessed about the cannibalism.
Now, Daniel is a petty thief hiding in LA. But then his uncle comes to him with the heist of all heists: raid the Hierarch’s magical stores. According to the back blurb:
“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.”
This bit of the back blurb made the book look dubious for female characters in a way that is completely not true. Like, Jo is a female shape shifter, so there’s actually three women and two men on the team. Referring to Cassie as “Daniel’s ex” was really misleading. I mean, she was his ex-girlfriend, but I don’t see why they said this instead of “safe-cracker” when all the other team members got some reference to their skills. I also felt like it implied the usual sort of cliches associated ex-girlfriends. He’d reluctantly have to get her on the team, they’d have an adversarial relationship, ect. None of this happened. At the beginning of the book, she’s introduced as his partner. They’ve been working together for years. Yes, they dated when they were teenagers, but why is that put on the back of the book?
When it comes to the characters, they are mostly serviceable at best. None of them really came alive for me, and I don’t actually like Daniel very much. My favorite characters were actually Gabriel and Max, who were both associated with the police and on Daniel’s trail. I liked them best, but there were no characters who I just feel in love with.
Oh, the book also pulled a pet peeve of mine where real world people are characters. Like, Disney appeared as an evil magic user who works for the Hierarch. I have no idea why this bugs me as much as it does.
The most interesting part of the book was the magic system – eating the bones of long dead creatures (like griffin or kraken) gives you magical powers. Unfortunately, when a magic user eats a fossil, the magic becomes stored in his bones. Thus, with a dwindling supply of fossils magic users eat each other to become more powerful. Hence, the really gross cannibalism aspect. I probably would have regretted listening to this on audio, and if there’s ever a movie of it… it may pass my limits for what I can tolerate. I was alright with reading it on the page though.
In terms of plot, plenty happened and the pacing was good. Unfortunately, I never became completely involved or sucked in (possibly because of the characters?). Anyway, I was never gasping at an amazing plot twist.
Overall, California Bones is a short, gritty fantasy heist story with a unique magic system. I would recommend this to people looking for non-romance based urban fantasy or a fantasy heist story.