California Bones Review

California Bones by Greg Van EekhoutCalifornia Bones Add to Goodreads or see more reviews
by Greg Van Eekhout (2014)

Recommended for fans of:
* L.A. noir: gritty streets and California sunshine
* Interesting and unique magic systems
* Heists and con men
* Urban fantasy with no vamps or weres

Magic lives on in the bones. Those who ingest the fossils of ancient creatures gain their powers, and that magic settles into their bones in turn. Daniel’s father made him into an osteomancer by feeding him kraken spine at age six. At twelve, Daniel watched his father die, devoured by the Hierarch for the magic he carried. He’s been on the run ever since, hiding in the criminal underground of Los Angeles.

Now, Daniel is offered a heist he can’t refuse: break into the Hierarch’s storehouse of magical artifacts and steal back his father’s sword. He needs a team he can trust, so he brings his closest friends in on the job. Together, they plan to crack the most closely guarded vault of a corrupt regime and take on the man who killed his father.
4 Stars - Recommended
My result: Recommended

Full Book Review

California Bones checks off basically every single item on my personal literary kink list, wraps it up in a single story, and begins an entire series that promises more of the same. It’s so exactly what I love in a book that, if done decently, of course I’ll love it.

So here’s what I love about California Bones. Which is pretty much my guilty pleasures confessional list as well.

L.A. Noir

California Bones mixes fantasy with a touch of hardboiled noir. Sun-baked streets and California glitz barely disguise a world of crime and corruption. The Hierarch rules with absolute power, and all of Southern California lives in fear of his notice.

But it’s not just dark and gritty in the way of most urban fantasies. The California setting contributes a lot to the story, from the La Brea tar pits that hide a wealth of osteomantic bones, to the glinting shop windows of Rodeo Drive where only the most privileged do business.

In one of my favorite details, Walt Disney is one of the few mages powerful enough to challenge the Hierarch. His illusioneers have perfected the art of manufacturing happiness, pumping osteomantic essences into theaters to create an addicted guaranteed audience and blending the perfect mix of enhancements and illusions to keep the masses swarming the happiest place on earth. (Likewise, Mulholland is a powerful water mage who keeps the city running and has his own ways of challenging the Hierarch.)

Unique magic system

The bone-based magic system is fascinating and unique. I love seeing mystical creatures like kraken and unicorns listed right alongside mammoth and saber tooth tigers. Each creature translates into a different magical ability, which means that magic works differently for each osteomancer depending on the kinds of bones they’ve ingested. I enjoyed guessing what power each creature would bestow, or what combination Daniel would need to gain a specific ability. Griffin bone gives speed and flight, for example.

But fossils are a non-renewable resource, and supplies are running out. A black market of osteomantic supplies operates in the side streets of Los Angeles, and suppliers peddle fake bones to the tourists. Dealers smuggle in international supplies, like dragon bones from China. The rich and powerful collect the bones of rare beasts, and weaker osteomancers are butchered and recycled for the magical residue that’s settled into their body.

Osteomancy is one of the most original magic systems I’ve seen. It has internal logic, so each new detail makes sense. It’s flexible and has endless variation. It draws on every strange beast or power that exists in folklore (plus some new ones). Anything is possible. But limited resources lead to brutality and crime, so the magic becomes a primary driver for the darker elements of the plot.

Heists and Con Men

The plot of California Bones follows a classic heist novel structure. After meeting Daniel, we are introduced to the rest of the team, and their abilities. Each member of the team is interesting, with a personality and personal history that makes them more than just what they bring to the team. My favorite is Moth, a big guy with a bigger heart, who can take any injury (even death) and heal within a few minutes, but hides intelligence and a sharp wit behind his massive size.

I also appreciate the gender balance and full characterization in Daniel’s team. They are split evenly between men and women, and their roles in the heist are determined by their skills, not their genders. Cassandra, the ex-girlfriend, is treated as a fully separate character, not just a piece of Daniel’s history.

California Bones changes one element of the classic heist. Daniel’s team is made up of trusted friends, not strangers. They are still a group of odd characters and misfits, but they already work together well. The getting to know each other stage is vastly shortened, allowing the reader to get to the excitement of the heist a little faster. Instead, you get to see their abilities in action as they carry out a smaller theft to obtain a rare osteomantic ingredient for the main heist. Friendship and loyalty bond the group together quickly. It’s the magic and power of the Hierarch that provides conflict, not interpersonal squabbling.

I also enjoyed the way the heist naturally develops into a mission to take down the Hierarch. The motivation is there early on, thanks to the murder of Daniel’s father. But I love that this isn’t a straight up revenge quest. Daniel is outclassed and outpowered, and not stupid enough to let himself get killed just for a shot at vengeance. It’s a heist, plain and simple. They learn to get past the Hierarch’s defenses with a plan to get in and get out. Secrets revealed along the way show the reader just how corrupt this regime is, and you desperately want Daniel to take them down. But he resists, choosing self-preservation and his friends over revenge, all the way through the book and through the very satisfying climax.

Final Verdict

With its mix of mystery and fantasy in a classic heist setup, California Bones blends elements that will appeal to a lot of readers. A unique and powerful magic system keeps the story fresh, despite the familiar elements. Every character in Daniel’s team is layered and interesting, while the opposing force is truly despicable. The Hierarch’s regime needs to be brought down, and Daniel is the man to do it.

With all that it does right, California Bones is very close to a five star read for me. There were two small details, oft repeated, that kept this from being a five. They seemed like plot inconsistencies or writing flaws and bothered me throughout the book. In fact, they’re clues to a future plot development (which is why I’m being vague here). I can forgive them since they turned out to be important, not just sloppy errors. But they weren’t planted well enough to work as subtle clues. Instead, they were irritants, and I’m rounding down for their poor integration into the plot.

If you like California Bones

If you like California Bones try these books
You might also enjoy:

  • Sandman Slim – Noir and urban fantasy explode in violent action and gritty atmosphere, as a hitman from Hell comes to L.A. on a mission of vengeance.
  • Mistborn: The Final Empire – For unique and compelling magic systems, you want Brandon Sanderson (pretty much any book). Mistborn starts with a classic heist and takes on an evil regime in the process.
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora – Locke Lamora is a master con man with a gang of trusty thieves at his back. Every book features elaborate cons, entertaining deceptions, and all the intrigue you could want. If thieves and con men are your thing, you MUST read this series.
  • Check out my Ten Heist Novels to Fall For List for even more heists and con men. It’s an addiction…
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