Sometimes the best books are the ones which just kick your ass on the first page and keep thwacking you up one side of the page and down the other, for pages and pages. That’s pretty much what The Entropy of Bones by Ayize Jama-Everett is like.
We loved Jama-Everett’s first novel The Liminal People, a twisted superhero story that played with all the old tropes about superpowers but captured them in a brand new way. With Entropy of Bones, he gets even more focused on awesome fighting action, and also tells a really intense personal story of a young woman trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs, by putting a lot of people in the hospital.
There’s a reason why we wanted to talk to Jama-Everett about the secrets of writing an action movie in book form.
The main character of Entropy, Chabi, is one of the most unique characters we’ve come across in quite some time. She’s born mute, to a single mother who lives on a boat, but then when she’s a child she learns to “speak” using telepathic projection—and nobody seems to notice that her mouth isn’t moving when she talks. In a series of flashbacks, we learn how the young Chabi was trained by a mysterious badass named Narayana, to master dozens of martial arts katas, but also to find the “entropy of bones,” causing anyone’s bones to shatter irreparably.
Meanwhile, in the present, Chabi is a young adult who’s lost her martial-arts master, and she’s aimlessly going on 50-mile runs and getting into fights. Until she’s hired by a group of failed winemakers to protect their new crop—marijuana—from some thieves. And then Chabi gets an even more lucrative job, head of security for a luxury hotel where the people in charge seem to have monstrous rat-faces and other animal faces. Soon she’s drawn into an ancient war involving ancient forces.
Along the way, there are reflections on music, dancing, how to feel the rhythm around you and move with it, relationships, family and communication. Chabi is a passionate, curious character who’s constantly making observations and learning stuff, when she’s not being drawn into conflicts.
And Jama-Everett has a real gift for writing violence. Like in this passage, early on, when Chabi is taking on a whole crew of Mexicans who are trying to steal the Napa Valley family’s marijuana plants:
I let the large Mexican see my fist and when he raised his thick Adam’s apple to speak I shoved it into his mouth. Falling on his knees caused such a thud his partner had to look over. All he saw was my head-butt causing three grand in dental bills. The last three were closer now. It would have been easier to play it straight but I wanted the challenge. I gathered three stones, half palm sized, and launched them in the thieves’ direction. All three hit, but only two went down. The last, another local, twirled, confused by his own pain and fallen friends. I pounced on him quick, covering the distance between us without regard to sound, and finally choking him out with a hush.
All good? I asked Dale as he came up from the berry bushes holding the guns of the others. His breathing was even but his eyes were wide. Before he could say anything I went around salamander-smacking the small of the thieves’ backs, keeping them both paralyzed and unconscious. That snapped Dale back into business mode and he began searching wallets.
A lot of the best bits in the book involve Chabi taking on impossible odds and winning out, somehow, thanks to her incredible training and her instincts for how to go with the grain of the situation and catch people off balance. She wins, at least as much because other people underestimate her as because of her incredible fighting powers. As the book goes on, the fights only get tougher and more unwinnable, and Chabi is forced to get more cunning and resourceful.
And meanwhile, there’s a fascinating thread running through Entropy of Bones, about co-dependent relationships. Chabi is a super-tough, independent, defiant person... who has a tendency to put herself under the thumb of a powerful man. First her trainer, Narayana, and later the owner of the luxury hotel that she goes to work for. She becomes unreasonably devoted to these men, and willing to go to any lengths for them. Even to the point of being self-destructive. This tension between Chabi’s incredible strength and her willingness to submerge her identity in someone else provides a lot of the energy of the book, and turns into a metaphor for the ways in which even the most independent people tend to compromise and become secondary to others.
The main problem with The Entropy of Bones comes in the final one-third of the book, when the book starts getting more submerged in larger mythos—it’s connected to Jama-Everett’s two other books, The Liminal People and The Liminal War, way more than I had realized beforehand. All of a sudden, we’re drowning in exposition and backstory, and there’s a lot of complicated stuff getting spooled out. Worse yet, a character whom we’ve barely met before shows up and starts not only explaining the larger storyline at great length, but also fixing everything for Chabi. It’s sort of jarring for a book with such a well-drawn main character to suddenly relegate her to being a supporting character in her own story.
Luckily, this flaw doesn’t prevent the book from rallying and reaching a powerful conclusion, in which Chabi is once more front and center and making the important decisions. All of the excess backstory and explanation drops away in the final chapters, and Chabi faces the fight of her life, ending in a fitting conclusion.
And even if it does get bogged down a bit in its final act, The Entropy of Bones leaves you with the impression of an epic action-adventure, in which an unforgettable character has been through something huge and has been changed as a result. And that’s the best thing you can ask for from any action movie.