Greg Van Eekhout's new novel California Bones is a supernatural noir tale. Set in an alternate Los Angeles ruled by authoritarian sorcerers and corporate moguls, it's an engrossing story about political malevolence. But it's also a caper about the ultimate magical heist. You won't be able to put it down.
Daniel is a young osteomancer in a world where magic comes from what you eat. Magicians eat bones to gain power — whether they're from extinct animals, magical animals, or (disturbingly) the bones of other oesteomancers. When a rapacious osteomancer known only as the Hierarch emerges from the Pacific Ocean in the early twentieth century, he transforms the landscape of Los Angeles and begins mining the fossil-rich La Brea Tar Pits for every last ounce of bone.
After fighting off a fleet of helicopters single-handedly, he turns Los Angeles into a city-state, lining his castle with mammoth ribs and dragon scales. With his aid, a magically-preserved Walt Disney calms the city with narcotic dust in movie theaters. And other figures from the city's past stick around to pull strings too.
Osteomancers without connections in the Hierarch's city find themselves impoverished, jailed, or enslaved in a variety of terrible ways. And anyone who speaks out against the the regime becomes the great man's next meal — just as Daniel's osteomancer father did when Daniel was a boy. Luckily, Daniel's father fed him the bones of kraken and other creatures, so he manages to escape. His mother flees to the semi-free Northern Kingdom, leaving Daniel to grow up Oliver Twist style with a local gangster who teaches him the arts of thievery. By the time Daniel has come of age, he's a powerful but untested osteomancer, leads his own gang of thieves, and carries a lot of emotional baggage.
And that's when Daniel's old gangster/caretaker asks him to do one last job. He has to rob the Hierarch's treasure stores, to find a weapon that could provide a key to Daniel's lost past — and possibly overturn the city's whole power structure. Van Eekhout does a terrific job making Daniel's impending caper feel fun, while still reminding us that this is a man who lives in the shadow of political violence. Los Angelenos live in constant terror that there will be another magical purge.
One of the joys of this book for anyone who knows Los Angeles is Van Eekhout's careful evocation of the city's real landmarks, but transformed by the alternate, magical history that's unfolded over the last several decades. The La Brea Tar Pits is a real place, for example, as are many of the landmarks we see. Instead of a city of highways, however, LA has become a city of canals — the urban design of Venice has taken over the whole region, partly due to a powerful water mage whom you might recognize if you've ever seen the movie Chinatown.
There's also an absolutely chilling scene where the Hierarch's thugs destroy a well-known LA cafe called Intelligentsia, murdering everyone in it, and driving home that this magical city is not Disneyland. It's more like a contemporary Damascus or Kiev.
Like Van Eekhout's last adult novel, Norse Code , this is a book that is fun and fantastical, while also offering us a disturbing and wise allegory. It's about what happens when magic is just another weapon in the arsenal of a dictator — and in the pockets of his rivals. It's action-packed and intense to the last, bringing in weird twists that add psychological complexity to the fireballs and earthquake fights. California Bones reaches a satisfying conclusion, though you can tell there's more to come — and indeed, Tor will soon be releasing the sequel, Pacific Fire.