You know how in this digital age, when you walk into a room that contains an actual ticking clock, it seems like it's the loudest thing ever? But if you give yourself an hour you don't notice it anymore? Well, Greg Van Eekhout's California Bones series is a little like that, except in place of the constant tick-tock of a clock, you instead have the word 'osteomancer.' Or 'osteomantic.' Or any of its many, many variations. Van Eekhout uses this word on almost every page, and it will take a while for you to realise it's not going away. To Greg this is as necessary as 'a,' 'it,' or 'said,' for the world he has created within Pacific Fire and its predecessor California Bones is one of magic—and 'osteomancy' is a big part of that.
Based on a short story that first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006, the California Bones series is set in a world that, while familiar, has some very definite differences to our own. California has broken away from the United States and both Northern and Southern California are separate republics that, instead of having a network of roads and freeways, are mostly built around a labyrinthine network of canals. The first novel in the series, California Bones, told the story of Daniel Blackland, a powerful osteomancer who can wield magic through the ingesting of magical creatures. His father—also a powerful osteomancer—raised Blackland thusly in order to make sure he had the means to protect himself. However, in Van Eekhout’s world this is a dangerous decision to make, since osteomancers are themselves seen as magical creatures—and therefore fair game to be eaten by those who want power.
The Hierarch, the ruler of Southern California, is the kind of man who wants all the power—and, knowing Blackland Sr. to be a rich source, killed and ate him in front of the young Daniel. As a result, Daniel went into hiding, living below the radar in the California underworld. He was taken under the wing of Otis Roth, the big cheese in California's underworld, and taught how to be a thief, but eventually broke free of this life and built a new one away from his criminal mentor. That is, until Otis came forward with a job Daniel couldn't resist: to steal the Hierarch treasury which contained a weapon made for Daniel by his father. Along with his ex-girlfriend and master of locks Cassandra, the unfeasibly large and un-killable Moth, and shape-shifter Jo, he set out to do just that, ultimately killing the Hierarch and eating his heart. This, of course, made Daniel Blackland not only feared, but also even more of a target for the power-hungry. Not only that, but, in the final scenes of California Bones, Daniel ran away with the Hierarch’s golem, a faux-human created from the Hierarch’s magic. So everyone now wants a taste of both of them.
The good news is that Van Eekhout has an ability I do not share to summarise this previous story within a few lines, allowing the reader to be reminded of who's who and who's new without being jolted away from the latest novel. In Pacific Fire, we join the action not long after the close of the last book, and Daniel and the golem are on the run. The golem is still a child and Daniel is doing his best to protect him. In these first few pages we learn that the golem, who takes the name Sam, is already aware of his power, and already slightly scared of it. The story then jumps forward ten years and California is a very different place. With the Hierarch gone there is no absolute ruler and the power has been split between different factions—some osteomancers, some mages, and those who control the import of osteomantic supplies. One of the latter is Otis Roth, and he's managed to gain a large chunk of control, keeping everybody else under his thumb—including one Gabriel Argent, a water mage and childhood friend of Daniel Blackland who is growing weary of Roth. He becomes even more so when Roth reveals he’s going to make a dragon from old bones as part of a plan to control California with only Argent, himself, and Sister Tooth—an osteomancer and warrior—in power, as opposed to the several different warring factions into which it currently finds itself split.
In this context, the reader might expect a repeat of California Bones, in which Daniel is once again called upon to fight the 'big bad.' In fact, the story becomes not Blackland’s but Sam’s. As such, the majority of Pacific Fire differs in tone slightly from the first book, as the narrative voice reflects the teenage woes of Sam. This focus on a younger, inexperienced character could easily have made this installment into more of a Young Adult novel. Van Eekhout certainly has experience in this field, with previous novels Kid vs. Squid and The Boy at the End of the World; but we are spared the tone change being too jarring by the author's refusal to reframe the subject matter and world to fit in with the younger characters. Indeed, the teenagers we follow are in fact golems, so while young in appearance and inexperienced in the human side of things, they are made of something ancient—and so are infused with a much older soul.
Earning money when they can and stealing when they can't, then, Sam and Daniel are constantly in transit. As a kind of teenager, Sam is starting to get a little fed up and wants to settle somewhere; go to school and meet girls. He thinks he might get his wish, but little does he know that Argent has—yes—hired Daniel to slay that dragon.
True to his role in the novel as a pseudo-father, Daniel wants Sam safe, so he plans to get him out of harm's way while Daniel goes on alone. But nothing ever goes smoothly, and it isn't long before Daniel and Sam are attacked—and, despite Daniel's and Sam's best efforts, Daniel gets brought down with a poison. Despite being a veritable magical smorgasbord, Sam is still unable successfully to wield magic, and it’s all he can do to stop Blackland from dying there and then, so he rushes to a safe house where a group of golems—all called Emma—do their best to save Daniel.
When Sam tells them what's happening, they refuse to help bring down the dragon, despite having the means to do so. Sam therefore decides to do it himself, managing to recruit only a single Emma, who goes by the name Em, to help him. This is where the story really begins—with Sam’s journey. Indeed, we are reminded numerous times that, although Sam is the golem of the Hierarch, and therefore is magical to his core, his actual abilities are small. When confronted by Em, he admits he doesn't stand a chance against the dragon or any of the obstacles in his way. Em confronts him about this:
'How's your stealth osteomancy?' she asked.
'Not great,' he said.
'How impenetrable are you?'
'You mean like to bullets and things?'
'I am utterly penetrable,' Sam admitted.
Em shines her light on him, as if searching for some kind of defect. 'You are the Hierarch's golem aren't you?'
'I don't live up to my potential.' (p. 86)
In the novel's deliberately complex vision of parentage, Sam is essentially Daniel Blackland's son, and he has been brought up seeing Daniel fight off osteomancers who wanted to consume them both. His entire sense of good and bad has been shaped by his adoptive father, so with Daniel incapacitated he believes that he has to find and destroy the dragon no matter what it takes. He has been trained in magic to a point, but Em questions Daniel’s teaching abilities—and infers that Sam should be much more powerful than he appears to be.
The duo head off to get help from a grave-robber who deals in magical bones and the Bautistas, a couple who can fly them to where the dragon is being built. As we see Sam meet these people, for the first time without Daniel helping him, Van Eekhout makes sure we know just how much of an influence his adoptive father has on the "son" even when absent—but also how Sam resists and rebels. We see that Sam has a little of the John Connor about him—he's been taught that he's important and that a lot of people want him, and may want to kill him. When talking to the Bautistas, for instance, he is asked if he is an osteomancer:
Daniel had prepared Sam to answer this question, whether asked by a stranger, a friend, or a cop, whether asked out of idle curiosity or from someone making a business proposal or interrogating him or beating him or begging him for magic to steal a wound. The answer was always supposed to be the same: No. (p. 105)
Even when Daniel is lying at the roadside dying, Sam is met with the same train of thought:
They had protocols for what Sam was supposed to do if Daniel was killed. He was supposed to leave Daniel behind . . . He was not supposed to look back. (p. 58)
In both situations, however, Sam makes up his own mind: he saves Daniel and puts himself at risk, and he tells Fernando Bautista that he's not only an osteomancer but potentially a very powerful one. Sam is a teenager who’s finding himself and starting to rebel, albeit with much higher stakes than your average mallrat might face. He's also becoming more aware of who he is, and it's that awakening that we follow throughout the book.
Van Eekhout is in no hurry to tell this story. At each new destination, he takes the time to describe the situation in great detail; he could possibly get away with not spending a chapter with the Emmas, or devoting as many pages to Sam and Em's visit to the grave-robber, but in doing so we learn about Sam. We relate to him, and Van Eekhout makes us care for him: he makes us see that he is still essentially a child who just wants to impress his father while simultaneously wanting to prove him wrong.
Van Eekhout's tendency slowly to unfurl these scenes also allows us to get rich descriptions of the places the characters visit, however briefly. He paints a vivid picture of the grave-robber's dwelling, for example, and infers with very few words that he is several apples short of a bushel. We also get a comprehensive view of the Bautistas home and life, making sure that although we are only visiting them once, we leave them caring what happens to them. We also see how Sam is very aware of the risks himself: 'He wasn't just paying for a round trip flight,' Sam reflects when securing transit to the dragon. 'He was paying for the chance to orphan three kids.' (p. 102)
So even though he's grown up with Daniel Blackland, a hardened and ruthless thief, it's clear that Sam is his own person and follows his own heart. Sam experiences a further awakening when the plane that is transporting them is attacked. In the emotional turmoil of suddenly dropping out of the sky, his osteomantic powers come to the fore and he manages to manoeuvre the plummeting plane onto its belly using magic. A few pages later, a Rock Giant rises up out of the ground and Sam is able to make it fall apart with only a command. It is here Sam is forced to question his relationship with Daniel once again, as it becomes clearer that Sam is more powerful than he first thought and that Daniel has been draining his powers.
If California Bones was a revenge/heist story, then Pacific Fire is most definitely a coming of age/heist story. As such, parts of Sam's story will be familiar: all he wants is to meet girls and have fun, and as he travels with Em you can see that despite all the terrible things they go through together, all he wants is to be with her. A part of him wants to stop what they are doing and live a normal life. Even when he and Em get deeper and deeper into the heist, there are exchanges that serve to remind you that they're only teenagers, in a situation that they really shouldn’t be in. For example, at one point, and in order to escape the authorities, Sam and Em get help from Carson, an ex-boy band member, and they end up back at his hotel suite. Here, Em gets caught up in meeting a celebrity and Sam gets jealous, like any teenager would. At first this section seems a frivolous diversion from the main plot, but it is in this sense important and effective.
While all this is happening, Daniel is revived—and angry. He is enraged that the Emmas have let Sam go, and his thread of the book sees him chase Sam across California. It’s in these chapters that we see a Blackland not quite as hardened as he first appeared. It becomes clear that his first priority is Sam’s safety, and he recruits his old pal Moth to help him get to him before Sam gets to the dragon. This section of the story is the only part of the book that really jars, as it goes against the laid-back style that Van Eekhout uses in the rest of the book and seems rushed. Of course, Daniel and Moth would be rushing from place to place in their search for Sam and Em—but the sudden change of pace throws the reader out a bit, especially as what follows routinely pulls back the pace, and we're once again back into the rather different tone that Pacific Fire tends otherwise to use.
One of Van Eekhout's greatest strengths, however, is to be able to make the reader care about—or despise—all of these characters, no matter how small their part. He can write a hundred words to describe someone, or hardly any at all, and he makes you care just the same. His descriptions are also beautifully structured around a world where the ability to effectively taste and smell osteomancy can mean the difference between life and death; the reader is taken into a world that is seen through the olfactory senses as much any other. Eekhout manages to make you imagine the smells of these fantastical creatures, rendering the images he conjures up all the more real:
Sam imagined green, fungal scents. Mushrooms. Earth. An almost sickening, gelatinous flesh smell. Things that reminded him of starfish and salamanders and a basic, fundamental sense of life. (p. 59)
As the action picks up and the scenes get more bloody and sinister, things point towards plans going awry and Van Eekhout, again, handles the setup beautifully. The climactic chapters don't feel too rushed, even managing to fit in a dinner scene, but on the other hand once the danger appears the tension never lets up and Van Eekhout never relies on flashes and bangs to get his point across. As the story draws to a close, you feel satisfied and completely ready for the inevitable book three.
It's this ability to mix action and tension with a slowly unfurling story that makes Pacific Fire such an enjoyable read. Parts of the story indeed feel familiar—because who hasn't read a heist story or a coming of age story? But it's Van Eekhout's mastery of the language he uses, and the clear descriptions of the world he's invented it allows, that sells the story. All Van Eekhout's characters arrive fully formed, and this concise characterisation maintains the momentum throughout.
Van Eekhout has, then, created a fascinating world in which every character matters, and none exists as a sounding board. With only one exception, the story flows smoothly and everything that happens does so for a reason. Pacific Fire is dark, humorous, and emotional with plenty of danger; what more could you want from an adventure story?
Mark Granger also writes for music sites. You can find his most recent work at mark-granger.tumblr.com.