California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout - Refreshing take on urban fantasy.

Greg Van Eekhout was not a name familiar to me when I started reading California Bones but I swear to amend this mistake soon. Boy can this guy write!

So here's the blurb:

A novel of magic, a heist, and the unexpected things that change your life.

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.

Extravagant and yet moving, California Bones is an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality--different from the world we know, yet familiar and true.

California Bones was an e-galley from Tor books released in June this year. So why read this one? Imagine the original Ocean’s Eleven – An Urban Fantasy about a heist-adventure featuring a stunningly original magical system. With a bone-eating magician in the lead role set in a magical South Cal where the future of this city rests on a heist of fantastic proportions.

That actually doesn’t do the book justice. It’s an absolute roller coaster fun read – a thrilling adventure of sorts that takes no prisoners. Daniel Blackhand, the osteomancer around whom the whole story revolves is not the most interesting of characters. He’s something of an escapist. Having escaped his fate when he was hardly nine – when he watched the Hierarch, the ruthless tyrant ruler of South California, kill and eat his father to ingest his magic – and surviving in hiding making small time petty crime and generally keeping a low profile for the past ten-twelve years. But then an opportunity pops up to make it big. A single grand sweep that requires him to break into the Ossuary – the secret keep of the Hierarch – to steal the magical sword that the Hierarch once stole from his father that has magical bits of himself embedded in it – and thus right a wrong done many years ago. And even save himself as well in the process.

Daniel assembles a crack team – a shape-shifting illusionist, a self-healing tough guy, an all-round specialist who can crack safes and shoot targets blind and who also happens to be his ex-lover. And attempts to break into lair of the spider. Only to have things go spiralling wrong as they should.
It’s a fast-paced novel and there is no break in the proceedings. And it reads like one heist movie. Choosing the team. Practising the strike. Going through with the strike. And Wham! Hell breaks loose.

I ain’t saying I saw the twists coming from a mile off but the breakneck pace of the plot sweeps you through and yes while you would be nodding in familiarity, it is still as enjoyable as ever. The plot is energetic, filled with action and unexpected setbacks for the caper, setting things up for a fast-paced narrative mined up with high-strung tension. Greg’s writing is refined and a dash of quick humour lightens up the dark mood of the heist-story.

Now the most striking aspect about this wonderful new world that Greg has built or should I say, converted the near-future Los Angeles to, is of course the magic. Osteomancy. Magic from bones.
“Our bodies are cauldrons and we become the magic we consume.”
Explains Daniel’s father about the same to a six-year old Dani who witnesses one of the first experimentations that his dad does with him. That of ingesting Kraken bone – thus investing Dani with the power of calling forth lightning shots through his body. It is stunningly original and yet not so outlandish so as to “circle around the perimeter of us readers’ understanding and then sink into oblivion”. Meaning it is accessible and Greg works wonders.

As I said before while Daniel may not be the most endearing primary character, his gang – all of them childhood cronies – make for an interesting ensemble. Cassandra, ex-flame and all-rounder comes close to being a well-rounded character. Emma Walker, the inside mole within the Hierarch’s organization makes for an unexpected twist and is an intriguing character that will have you guessing. While for the rest, the past-story gets only a fleeting glance, their roles in the current caper keeps things interesting. I especially found Moth – the muscle-man who is quite “un-killable” to be very intriguing.  The most under-played character is actually the second lead, Gabriel Argent. A far-removed grand-cousin of the Hierarch, Gabriel nurses his own ambitions and is a determined man – hot on the trial of Daniel Blackhand, believed to be dead while a child long time back. Gabriel, sadly gets short-changed in terms of characterization towards the end of the book, ceding all guts and glory to our heist-leader and magical genius, Daniel. I am hoping to see more of Gabriel in the next books.

Another fun element in the book is of course the alternate reality that Greg has built around LA. A city filled with canals and water-systems. Roping in luminaries like Walt Disney who is an aged Osteomancer using magic to entertain and animate and weaving in real famous places in LA into the narrative to strike that nostalgic balance. Very succinctly done.

My only complaint would have been the predictability and the rushed job towards the climax where things fall in place so easily. But don’t get me wrong, this is a book you must try.
Especially, if you love your heist stories and a blistering-paced action novel that challenges the boundaries of what urban fantasy is capable of doing and especially if you like your magical systems unique and original, then California Bones is your answer.


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