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Saturday, July 12, 2014


Author:  Greg van Eekhout
Plot Type:  Dystopian Urban Fantasy     
Ratings:  Violence4-5; Sensuality2; Humor—2-3 
Publisher:  Tor (6/2014)    
          California Bones (hardcover and e-book6/2014; paperback1/2015)
          Pacific Fire (hardcover and e-book1/2015)
          Dragon Coast (9/2015) (FINAL)

This post was revised and updated on 10/7/15 to include a review of Dragon Coast, the thirdand FINALnovel in the series. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels. 

                     NOVEL 3:  Dragon Coast                     
     Dragon Coast is the sequel to Greg Van Eekhout's California Bones and Pacific Fire, in which Daniel Blackland must pull off the most improbable theft of all.

     Daniel's adopted son Sam, made from the magical essence of the tyrannical Hierarch of Southern California whom Daniel overthrew and killed, is lost-consumed by the great Pacific firedrake secretly assembled by Daniel's half-brother, Paul. But Sam is still alive and aware, in magical form, trapped inside the dragon as it rampages around Los Angeles, periodically torching a neighborhood or two.

     Daniel has a plan to rescue Sam. It will involve the rarest of substances, axis mundi, pieces of the bones of the great dragon at the center of the Earth. Daniel will have to go to the kingdom of Northern California, boldly posing as his half-brother, come to claim his place in the competition to be appointed Lord High Osteomancer of the Northern Kingdom. Only when the Northern Hierarch, in her throne room at Golden Gate Park, raises her scepter to confirm Daniel in his position will he have an opportunity to steal the axis mundi—under the gaze of the Hierarch herself. And that's just the first obstacle. 

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from Dragon Coast on it's page. Just click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon. 

    FAIR WARNING!  This review contains spoilers for events in Pacific Fire.    
     In California Bones, Daniel Blackland killed the Southern Hierarch and disappeared, refusing to take the throne. In Pacific Fire, Daniel and his adopted son, Sam, lived a vagabond lifealways being pursued by those who wanted to eat their powerful bones. Both would be particularly tasty treats because Sam is the Hierarch's golem and contains all of the Hierarch's osteomantic powers, and Daniel ate the Hierarch's heart. In this world, "Dead osteomancers were generally not interred. Usually, their bodies were digested."

     In the climactic finale of Pacific Fire, Daniel and Sam tried to stop Daniel's golem brother, Paul, from activating the Pacific firedrake, a long-extinct dragon that Paul has recreated. While Daniel battled (and killed) Paul, Sam tried to sabotage the firedrake, but instead was absorbed by the fiery dragon, losing his physical body in the process and becoming a sentient spirit inside the firedrake. As Sam describes it, "He'd been destroyed. He'd dissolved away, flesh and blood and sinew and bone, like a seltzer tablet in water. But he wasn't dead. He was in the dragon now….He was no longer a physical being. Yet his back ached…and he still needed to pee…to sleep…to eat." 

     Dragon Coast begins not long after Sam was lost to the firedrake, and Daniel has a plan to get him back. Eekhout uses the third-person point of view to tell the story, alternating among Sam, Daniel, and Gabriel Argent, the powerful water mage of the Southern Kingdom, who wants to trap and control the firedrake for his own purposes. Although Gabriel promises to assist Daniel with his attempt to rescue Sam, he plans to double cross Daniel and take the firedrake for his own. 

     The plot, then, has three primary story lines—one for each main characterthat merge in the big showdown scene that ends the trilogy. Here are brief summaries of those story lines:

     > Daniel and his friends, Em and Moth, lure the firedrake to an isolated mountaintop where Daniel plans to pull out Sam's essence/spirit/soul and store it in the axis mundi, a bone chip from the great dragon at the center of the earth. Once he has Daniel in the bone chip, he can then put that essence into a new golem. But even well-planned capers go awry, so when the bone chip is lost and someone steals the Firedrake, Daniel has to put Plan B into action: going into the Northern Hierarch disguised as his dead brother, with Moth as his bodyguard/valet. Daniel and Moth plan to follow their usual heist process: "Do a thing, get out quick, don't die. Over the course of Daniel's career this plan had succeeded only to a limited degree."

     > Sam spends most of the book wandering about inside the dragon trying to figure out how to operate the controls and finding some major surprises as he explores the firedrake's innards. At this point, Sam is a "magical construct…traipsing about the insides of a Pacific firedrake configured like a bomber made of meat."

   > Gabriel builds up his powers and then travels with his hound, Max, and Daniel's friend/lover, Cassandra Morales, to locate the firedrake. Gabriel alone knows that he is about to betray Daniel, but he is sure that his long-time friend and employee, Max, will step up and help him if things get tough. Meanwhile, he has to be careful that Cassandra doesn't figure out what he plans to do. One thing we learn in this book is how tough and pragmatic Cassandra can be when it comes to protecting the people she cares about. We get a deeper look into the Gabriel-Max relationship in this book, particularly how conflicted Gabriel is about the firedrake and how his friendship with Max is the only close relationship in his life. 

     Although the scenes involving Gabriel's underhanded plans and Sam's naive explorations are interesting, they pale in comparison to Daniel's revelations about his brother's life. Daniel only met his golem sibling oncejust before he killed Paulso he has no idea what kind of person Paul was. When Daniel and Moth arrive in the Northern Kingdom, Daniel is in for some major shocks because Paul was a much more complex person than Daniel ever imagined. Daniel and Moth delve into Paul's life, peeling back one layer after another so that Daniel can absorb enough of Paul's identity to fool all of the people who have known Paul throughout his life. But it isn't as easy as Daniel hoped it would be.

     Adding to the difficulty of Daniel's identity deception is the fact that he finally comes face to face with his mother, Messalina Siglio, the woman who left him behind so many years ago in the hands of his cruel and evil Uncle Otis. The dramatic mother-son confrontation is a sad and bitter scene as Messalina tries to explain her actions while Daniel refuses to acceptor even listen toher desperate rationalizing. 

     A subplot of Daniel's story involves his ongoing relationship with Cassandra. Daniel knows that Cassandra "was practical. But she wasn't cold." At one point, when he chides her for killing someone, she hits right back at him: "You always come to me, not asking, but hopingknowingI'll give you the things you're afraid to ask for." In other words, she is pointing out that frequently Daniel's inner pragmatism does not translate into actual actionthat he depends on her to do his dirty work. She doesn't mind, but she doesn't want him pretending that she comes up with the actions on her own. It's a complicated relationship, to say the least. 

     I don't want to provide any more plot details because that would spoil your reading of the novel. I'll just say that this is a satisfying conclusion to a terrific trilogy. All of the ongoing conflicts are resolved, but new ones emerge towards the end of the book, so I'm guessing that Eekhout is leaving the door open for a possible sequel. I highly recommend this trilogy to sci fi/fantasy fans who are looking for nonstop action, magical adventures, noir humor, sympathetic characters, and a fresh and inventive mythology. 

     Just one nitpick: On p. 176 of the hardcover book, someone missed a crucial word error in a sentence that begins like this: “Leaving the stronghold of the Southern Hierarch….” No, no, no! Not the SOUTHERN Hierarch. The entire false identity caper is set in the NORTHERN Hierarch. The moral: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a copy proofer in possession of spellcheck tends to overlook the most obvious word-use errors.

     In this world, osteomancers are powerful wizards who absorb their magic from fantastical creatures by consuming their flesh and/or bones. As one character explains, the Osteomancer's craft is "to draw magic from bones. To capture it and store it, to use the creatures' power, guided by human intelligence." (California Bones) Osteomantic creatures include kraken (electrical energy), mastodons (strength), griffins (speed and flight), and basilisks (venom). Magic can also be pulled from other osteomancers, who have accumulated heightened magic in their flesh and bones over a lifetime of magical practice. Across the globe, a complex trading network provides bits of fossilized bone, jars of rare venom, preserved skulls, and other sources of magic to anyone who can pay the price. Local markets sell "a dizzying array of things in pickle jars: jars of preserved teeth, bones, penises, glands of all kinds." (California Bones

     The overriding theme relates to our desperate need for rapidly disappearing fossil-based, non-renewable natural resources. The need that this alternate
 California has for fossil magic is a metaphor for real California's need for fossil fuels.

     The first novel is set in an alternate Los Angeles, the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California, which seceded from the U.S.A. eighty years ago. The city is under the complete control of the Hierarch, the world's most powerful osteomancerLos Angeles is an autocracy in which the ruthless Hierarch uses magic-enhanced troops to guard, secure, and police the city. The Hierarch uses public punishment as a deterrent to crime of all kinds: "Daniel…glanced over to the community bulletin wall, where the Hierarch's authority was on display. The hands of thieves decorated one section of the wall like fish scales. Nearby, the crow-picked corpses of subversives hung in gibbets like wind chimes." (California BonesLaw-breakers are hanged publicly for even minor crimes such as simple burglary and public urination

     Working for the Hierarch are other osteomancers with various specialties, for example William Mulholland, who is the Water Mage and handles the city's water and power systems. Mulholland can cause flooding, droughts, and power outages that can be used to remind the populace that the Hierarch controls their lives completely. This alternate Los Angeles is modeled after Venice, Italy, having few roads but being crisscrossed by a complex canal system controlled by the Hierarch through Mulholland. People don't travel in cars; they use small boats, pontoon vans, water taxis, and gondola buses.

     Early in the story, we meet Sebastian Blackland and his young son, Daniel. Sebastian is a powerful osteomancer with a DaVinci-like predilection for experimentation. Over Daniel's lifetime, his father has been feeding him various osteomantic concoctions, gradually increasing Daniel's magical powers. By the end of chapter one, though, Sebastian is dead, eaten (yes…literally eaten) by the Hierarch during a purge that saw the deaths of many local osteomancers who were viewed by the Hierarch as threats to his position. In that horrific scene, 12-year-old Danielwho has made himself invisiblewatches as police officers with long knives burst in, kill Sebastian, and then begin to dissect his body, carving off slices of flesh and exposing his bones. Then, the Hierarch arrives: "The Hierarch loomed over the body of Daniel's father...In his hand, something of polished metal glinted. It was a fork. 'Excuse me,' the Hierarch said in a sandpaper voice, 'I'll have him fresh.'…[Daniel] heard something, over from the floor where his father lay, and where the Hierarch crouched. He didn't look, would not look, but the sound was obvious. The Hierarch was chewing…Ten years later, he would still hear the sound of the Hierarch's teeth grinding his father's cartilage." (California Bones

                      NOVEL 1:  California Bones                       
     A decade after his father's death, Daniel is a multi-talented petty thief. His father gave him magic; his mother (Messalina Sigilo) taught him stealth and physical defense skills; and his Uncle Otis Roth taught him thief craft. After Sebastian's death, Daniel's mother fled north towards San Francisco with a mysterious young boy who looked just like Daniel, leaving Daniel in the care of Otis, a major crime boss. Daniel hasn't seen his mother since that time, and he has been told that both she and the strange little boy are dead. As far as the Hierarch and his men are concerned, Daniel Blackland and his parents have all been destroyed and are no longer a threat.

     Currently Daniel is on his own, having broken away from Otis after the death of one of Daniel's crew while completing a job for Otis. Although Daniel longs to be able to leave Los Angeles for a new life, he also loves the dark side. In a scene in which he is using magic to break open a dragon-scale door, he muses about "the familiar pleasure of being somewhere he was not supposed to be and doing things he was not suppose to do…He was still having fun." (p. 149)

     Daniel's beloved team members play important roles in his life (and in this novel), although a late reveal puts a damper on the reason for their love of their leader:

   Cassandra (Cassie) Morales: Daniel's former lover; a sure-shot with any weapon as well as being a thief and lock-picker extraordinaire. 

   Moth: a behemoth of a man who has achieved near immortality due to a dose of magic administered by Daniel after Moth nearly died. He can literally come back from the dead. (Moth sometimes earns money by selling his kidneys, which grow back almost immediately.)

   Josephine (Jo) Alverado: an illusionist who can mold her face and body into any shape, size, or gender. She can become a huge man, a tiny woman, a small child—or anything in between.

     Daniel has been trying to go straight, but he can't get a job because he is living under an assumed name that won't stand up to any investigation. Moreover, all job-seekers must undergo background checks that include magical testing. Daniel reeks of magic, so he has to keep far away from the Hierarch's magic-sniffing hounds. Besides, Otis recognizes Daniel's unique skills and power and isn't about to let him loose.

     Basically, this is a magical heist story that plays out against a background of urban corruption. The two-pronged plot hinges on one of Otis's "projects." He wants Daniel and his crew to break into the Hierarch's Ossuaryhis storehouse of magical artifacts. Otis wants Daniel to bring him some basilisk tusks, but to sweeten the deal, he tells Daniel that his father's sword is stored in the Ossuary. To Daniel, the sword is extremely important because it contains his very essence (for example, his baby teeth and his tonsils) and because Sebastian always meant for it to be Daniel's legacy. Otis has someone on the inside who will help Daniel get in and out of the Ossuary safely: the aristocratic, enigmatic Emmaline (Emma) Walker, an osteomancer who works in the Hierarch's magical laboratories (and who has her own personal reasons for breaking into the Ossuary). The primary story line follows Daniel and his crew as they plan and carry out the robbery. Although that story line includes the standard heist tropes, Eekhout is such a good storyteller that I was pulled deep down into the dangerous, magic-filled tunnels right along with Daniel and his team.

     Unbeknownst to Daniel, someone has accidentally discovered that he is still alive. Gabriel Argent, one of the Hierarch's numerous grandnephews, works at the Ministry Office of Accountability. Gabriel is a desk jockey who believes strongly in the importance of bureaucracy: "Great civilizations might be born from guns, germs, and magic, but it was bureaucracy that kept them going." Although Gabriel is not an osteomancer, he does have a certain amount of power because of his access to the Hierarch's vast accumulation of records and magical "technology." (Gabriel's dull bureaucratic life and his lack of modern technology put me in mind of Terry Gilliam's brilliant dystopian-satire movie, Brazil.) Gabriel is sure that if he lets his boss know of Daniel's existence he will be promoted, but when his information is not received in the way he expected, Gabriel's next actions directly intersect with the lives of Daniel and his team. 

     I love the way that magic replaces technology in this world. For example, instead of relying on facial recognition software, Gabriel doses a group of potential witnesses with a potion that gives them the ability to draw detailed portraits of everyone with whom they came in contact during a given time period. Then, Gabriel takes the stack of drawings to a room full of memoraticians, who are fed memory-enhancement magic that allows them to page through the drawings and match them immediately to a decades-old photograph buried deep in the Hierarch's files. Great image!

     This is a terrific novel, the first in what looks to be a top-notch series. Daniel is a fascinating character: a highly intelligent wizard who accumulates more and more power as the story moves along. His childhood tragedy has pushed him into a strange life in which he has managed to tamp down his anger and push back his emotions while learning and applying the skills that allow him to survive. Daniel's friends have their own distinctive personalities that come out in their bickering dialogue and seamless teamwork. Gabriel is the antithesis of Daniel: a placid pencil pusher who sees his future as a gradual rise through the Hierarch's bureaucracy. When we first meet Gabriel, he is fully in support of the Hierarch and has done his part in aiding and abetting the corruption that is rotting Los Angeles from the inside out, but his outlook changes as the story progresses. 

     Eekhout adds noir humor to the story with brushstrokes of ironic fancy. For example, in this world the famous cartoonist, Disney, is an osteomancer who developed "a potent distillation of osteomantic intoxicant, and once they started misting it into movie theaters, they acquired an audience of happily addicted consumers who kept coming back for more." Also brimming with dark, sometimes macabre, humor are Eekhout's colorful metaphors: A row of just-hanged cadavers are hoisted up and "hung, upside-down from the ankles, like holiday ornaments." A brutish policeman on Rodeo Drive "stood out among the posh like ketchup on a pearl necklace." A snooty receptionist's nose is "sharp enough to use as a letter opener." 

     Eekhout uses cultural references in fresh and inventive ways. In one of my favorite scenes, which takes place in the middle of the Ossuary heist, he actually juxtaposes a catch phrase from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Cowabunga!) with a quotation from Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. Making the scene even more humorous is the fact that Emma, the proper British intellectual, voices the Shelley quote expecting total non-recognition from Daniel and his ragtag crew. When they stare at her in disbelief, she condescendingly explains, "That's from a poem," prompting Moth to grouse, "Yeah, Shelley…It's just that we usually don't do poetry during jobs." Great put down!

     Although a good deal of the conflict is resolved by the end of the book, some of the story threads remain unsettled, particularly those concerning Daniel's personal history, which is not at all what he thought it was. In any case, Daniel is off to new adventures, and I'll be waiting impatiently to read all about them. I highly recommend this engaging novel for its creative mythology, complicated hero, fast-paced plotting, and masterful use of irony and black humor. To read the first three chapters of California Bones, click HERE to go to the author's page and scroll down a bit.

  FAIR WARNING!  This review contains spoilers for events in California Bones.  
                    NOVEL 2:  Pacific Fire                    
     California Bones followed the adventures of Daniel Blackland, a powerful, but troubled, osteomancer who took down the evil Hierarch who ruled the Kingdom of Southern California. In Pacific Fire, our hero is the magic-filled, seven-year-old golem the Hierarch grew from his own body cells. The Prologue takes place just a week after Daniel leaves his life behind to save the golem's life by smuggling him out of Los Angeles. Daniel has explained to the golem what will happen to him if the two are captured. The bad guys would "cut him into pieces and press his body to get all the osteomantic oils out and remove his bones and grind them to powder. Daniel promised to protect him, but in case he couldn't, the golem had to learn how to protect himself." As they move constantly from place to place, Daniel has begun to teach the golem some magic, trying to get him to draw on his innate magical powers so that he can learn to take care of himself in the face on danger. In a touching scene at the end of the Prologue, the golem gives himself a name: Sam (from the character Sam-I-Am in Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham). 

     Chapter one begins ten years later. The late Hierarch's realm of Southern California has been divided amongst the strongest and the greediest, all of whom continue to vie for more and more power. One of the most greedy is Otis Roth, Daniel's uncle, and he has an extraordinary plan. Otis has collected all of the pieces and parts he needs to construct a massive Pacific firedrake (a long-extinct dragon) in an abandoned factory on Catalina Island. He wants to bring the firedrake to life, but he can't do it alone. Otis makes a pact with Gabriel Argent, a powerful water mage, and Sister Tooth, a deadly bone sorcerer, to work together to reconstruct and activate the firedrake. Gabriel can provide the electricity, and Sister Tooth can provide the bone magic. Unfortunately, Otis needs someone to become the vital spirit within the dragonthe one who brings it to roaring, fiery lifeand that person is the Hierarch's golem. Otis and his allies refer to Sam as "the Treasure" because he was constructed from all of the osteomantic powers contained within the all-powerful Hierarch. Sam has the innate ability to be even more powerful than the Hierarch, but as yet he has not been able to draw out much of his magic. As Sam explains to one of the Emmas, "I'm a big fizzy bottle of pop, but shake me up and I pour out flat." That situation will change as the story progresses. Sam's life has been a lonely one, with Daniel as the single permanent figure in his life on the run. Now in his late teens, Sam has never attended school, never had a girlfriend, never had any friends at all. He and Daniel have only each other, and Sam is beginning to want more.

     Immediately, life for Daniel and Sam gets even more dangerous as the attacks on their lives multiply. Even birds in the sky are being used by the rogue osteomancers to search for them. When Daniel is nearly killed by a poisoned spear in one of the attacks, Sam takes him to the Emmas, a group of golem women who have been constructed from the cells of Emmaline (Emma) Walker, the osteomancer who developed the art of golem-making and who was killed at the climax of California Bones. (Note: Pay particular attention to a fever dream Daniel has while recovering from the poison.) All of the Emmas look alike, but they have varying skills. The Emmas run a secret safe-house network that is dedicated to helping as many other golems as they can. Sam makes friends with an Emma just a year or two older than himself who calls herself Em and is a skilled and experienced warrior. When the Emma matriarchs refuse to help them, Sam and Em take off on their own to destroy the firedrake and save the world. Here, Em explains to Sam why they can't let Otis get control of the firedrake: "He found the bones of some bird that could turn anyone into a programmable zombie, and he used them on street kids. Voila, he had his wraiths, a collection of little operatives even better than golems. They're his cannon fodder, his suicide vests, whatever he needs. That's the kind of man Otis is. And that's why we don't want him to have a firedrake." 

     The plot mostly follows Sam and Em, with a few interruptions to check in with the villains and to keep tabs on Daniel, who soon joins the action along with some of his friends from book 1. Sam has been with Daniel so long that he knows how to contact Daniel's former associates, several of whom agree to help him out in one way or another. The story moves along at a breakneck pace, but there is time for some serious, and sometimes humorous, moments that chronicle the developing friendship between Sam and Em and some introspective scenes in which Sam muses on his father-son relationship with Danielmirrored by scenes in which Daniel does the same.

     The only part of the story that doesn't measure up is the part that features Carson, a handsome celebrity who plays a key role in providing Sam and Emma with transportation to Catalina Island. Carson is nothing more than deus ex machina who pops up out of nowhere, stays just long enough to fulfill his single purpose, and is never seen again. 

     This is another terrific book, with a wildly entertaining plot, poignant characters, and a slam-bang climax. Sam and Emma are wonderfully well-developed lead characters. I particularly liked Emma's fierce independence and easy self-confidence. When Sam needs her to hurl some magical weapons, he asks her "How's your throwing arm?" She replies, "I throw like a which I mean with strength and accuracy." Sam is also a fully realized character, one who has had no control over his own life until now and is determined to make the most of his new freedom and power. The final scenes are fraught with emotion as Daniel has to confront the brutal realities of his past and Sam must decide the best use of his powers. Both are forced to make difficult, soul-wrenching decisions. Pacific Fire has one of the most powerful and enthralling endings that I've read in a long time. But…there are still a few loose ends to be picked up in Dragon Coast, which is due in September. I can't wait! Click HERE to read an excerpt from Pacific Fire.

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