Bone Dance by Emma Bull. ★★★1/2
Bone Dance is a strange but enjoyable mixture of the post-apocalyptic with the supernatural. Sparrow is a trader of old videos and discs from before the nuclear missiles were set off by a group of psychics known as the Horsemen. But Sparrow’s been blacking out and losing memories. What’s going on?
Sparrow is an agender protagonist who’s never given pronouns. Sparrow’s only comment on the matter is this:
“You wouldn’t have so much trouble,” I muttered, straightening up carefully, “if you didn’t talk about me in the third person.”
While this is fitting with Sparrow’s somewhat prickly personality, it’s not helpful for writing this review. Therefore for the remainder of the review I will be referring to Sparrow with the singular “they/them” pronouns. Sparrow’s physical sex or gender is not discussed until about a hundred pages in, about where a number of different pieces of the book start coming together. There’s not a lot about this element I can say without running into spoilers (although I think there is a key point worth noting), but this article on Sparrow’s gender is worth reading if you’re willing to brave the spoilers.
“We’re all born nameless, aren’t we? And the name we end up with has only peripherally to do with our family tree.”
Sparrow was easily my favorite part about Bone Dance. When you first meet Sparrow, they are keeping themself permanently isolated and aloof from others. A large part of Bone Dance is diving into Sparrow’s concept of themself, as they learn to accept who they are and to open up to other people and form connections. Sparrow’s confident and snarky, but also in over their head with the current situation. They go through some real difficulties, and I was feeling for them the entire time.
The post-apocalyptic world of Bone Dance isn’t the lawless mad lands you tend to see in fiction. Sparrow lives in a city (clues point towards it being Minneapolis) that still has electricity, even if it’s controlled by the one man who rules the city government. There’s markets and nightclubs and people running theaters of salvaged televisions. In short, there’s some form of civilization, even though it’s only been fifty years since the nuclear missiles went off.
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Bone Dance is a mixture of science fiction and fantasy. The fantasy mainly comes in through the use of the psychics, tarot, and what the book calls hoodoo (I’ve got no idea if this is the same thing as voodoo, but it seems similar). These supernatural elements all play a large role in the plot. At times this can result in a mystical element that accounts for a large part of why I found the book strange.
I liked the prose of Bone Dance. Emma Bull really has a way with words, and I probably should have been marking pages for quotes as I read. Unfortunately, the pacing of Bone Dance is all over the place. The beginning is slow. Then there’s bits of action interspersed with large periods of reflection. While I think the reflection periods were important for Sparrow’s character growth, it did a number on the pacing.
I would recommend Bone Dance, though I’d want to note the poor pacing and strangeness of the plot. Still, I really love the lead character and there’s some interesting thematic material going on. I in no way regret reading it.