The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst
Sarah Beth Durst was one of my favourite authors of last year - with Racing the Sand among the top few favourite novels of mine. And this year, she does it again with The Bone Maker, one of the most anticipated releases of the year from the author.
The Bone Maker is a standalone fantasy novel, a rarity among today's multi-volume epic stories and that itself is a matter of curiosity. But Sarah's done this before with her previous book and I was confident about her ability to spin a self-contained highly entertaining story with all the rollicking elements of high fantasy within. So The Bone Maker explores the facets of the Hero's Journey, except...wait for it..the hero is a middle-aged woman, trying to piece together her life in the aftermath of the big war. It's an unusual subject but deftly handled, where Sarah immerses us into a richly drawn fantasy world on the back of a fabulous magic system based on bones.
Kreya is the leader of the five heroes, the fabled saviours of the empire, having killed the bone-maker Eklor who had used illegal bone-magic to create his own army of constructs to wage a bloody Bone War. The only glitch to happily-ever-after post that big showdown and having killed the 'villain', is that Kreya lost her husband, Jentt in that war. Kreya, though hasn't accepted defeat yet. As the novel opens, it has been twenty five years to that cataclysmic event and Kreya and her band of heroes have almost disappeared from the public eye, choosing obscurity over the ballads or posts within the Bone Guild. Kreya is working on a plan because Jentt's body hasn't been cremated as per traditional rituals. She actually has been working to revive Jentt, to bring him back from the dead, using illegal bone-magic and she realizes how dangerous this plan is, but is determined to go through with it, scrounging like a thief at the cremation grounds, searching for fresh bones.
She decides to leg it back to the city to seek the help of her best friend, Zera - who now is a rich and famous Bone Wizard, busy making and selling talismans to the needy that promise all kinds of speed, stealth and lots more 'additional' capabilities depending on what type of 'bone' is used to create the same. Zera hasnt forgiven Kreya for having 'abandoned' her friends post the war but her deep seat faith and loyalty to her commander supersedes everything else. This becomes the start of another adventure for the duo as they decide to brave the forbidden lands - the last known lair of Eklor - where the armies of the dead still lay unclaimed and where Kreya knows, she has enough ammunition to bring back Jentt for good. But what the duo find there are more than just the dead bodies. Because evil doesn't end, just because someone said, "the end." And how these middle aged 'heroes' get together once more to fight the evil that rears its ugly head, forms the majority of the narrative post.
The story works not just because of its novel treatment but the in-depth realisation and portrayal of the main characters. It is driven forward by the ferociously focused leader Kreya and the highly empathetic Zera who uses charming wit and external apathy as her weapons against this cruel world. Sarah has given us strong motivated female protagonists time and again and even this, we can get behind the resolute confident Kreya who puts her team before herself always. In fact, I loved Zera a lot more than Kreya. Zera is hurting but she projects and oozes confidence, masking her grief and insecurity with wit and charm. Her comments are outrageous and misplaced but it cracked me up several times during the novel. Then there is Jentt - a master thief, whose quiet belief in his wife and commander is impressive. The rest of the five including new additions to the "heroes' band" are equally alluring and interesting. I only had this slight complaint that we couldn't really see the world view of someone like Eklor, as to what motivated him as well, to round off both sides of the battle.
The magic system built off of bones is also a nice touch. Bone makers who can make constructs, Bone Wizards who can make talismans to enhance human capabilities and lastly the bone readers who can read the future or prophesies in the bones. Anyways, The Bone Maker is quite a read, with the flow and narrative just pulling you in as you go and before you realize, you are cheering the under-dogs squad as they battle monsters within the mist and then killer constructs out in the battle-field and within narrow alleyways within the city. this is a novel about mature heroes and their choices in life, about forgiveness and trauma and how to deal in life with the same. It's thoughtful and deep without losing the grip on all the fun quotients of an epic fantasy novel. Highly recommended read, for 2021.