The Heist is King: Greg Van Eekout’s CALIFORNIA BONES

2 Oct

The influence of Leverage is spreading throughout genre fiction. Leverage (2008-2012) was a drama TV series that centered around a group of con-artists led by a former insurance investigator. Nate brings together a team with diverse skills to stage cons and jobs on behalf of those who cannot find redress by more legal means. With witty banter and dialogue, crackerjack plotting, and a seasoned and well executed formula, the show is enormously entertaining and forms the template for heists and cons for any sort of genre. Story twists, the various defined roles of the team (the Mastermind, the Hitter, the Thief, etc), a strong sense of characters and much more are hallmarks of the series. These tools, perfected in Leverage, have clearly been recognized and scooped up by other writers for their story toolboxes (Scott Lynch comes immediately to mind).  I’ve borrowed these ideas for my roleplaying games, myself.

And so we come to Greg Van Eekout’s California Bones. Greg has written one prior novel for adults (Norse Code) and several Middle grade novels subsequent to this newest work. California Bones, projected to be the first of a series, takes that aforementioned Leverage-style heist and character banter and makes it the central set-piece of the novel. In between that, we get a fascinating alternate world fantasy set in a familiar, but drastically different, Los Angeles.CaliforniaBones

Daniel Blackstone is our protagonist and the central axis around California Bones. The son of a powerful magician killed when he was a boy, his unusual nature, as well as being the heir to his father’s power, means that Daniel keeps on the margins of society. The Hierarch, ruler of the Kingdom of Southern California (whose father and mother were killed) does not know that Daniel exists, and it is in Daniel’s interest to keep things that way. So when a crime boss offers Daniel a job to break into the unbreakable source of the Hierarch’s power for something stolen from Daniel and his father long ago, Daniel is in quite a spot. Luckily for Daniel, he has a set of contacts and allies that he, in the aforementioned style of Leverage, can put together as a team to make this big score (the last big score, even, and a clear interrogation of that trope) possible.

The worldbuilding in terms of the magic is a real highlight of the book. Although Daniel is an exception to the rules, his breaking of the magical rules most others live under is not a gamebreaker. He’s a superhero of sorts (although he does not think of himself that way) and a reluctant leader of the team. The novel is a coming of age story for him as he comes to terms with the full consequences of his abilities. Beyond Daniel, however, even the “ordinary” osteomancy is a fascinating magic system, excellently and interestingly rendered. In a nutshell, consuming the bones of a magical creature can temporarily give you abilities related to that magical creature.

And that sort of magic system — using the bones of magical creatures to power magic — allows the author to plausibly and interestingly explore the idea of magic as a limited resource in a way that refracts on our own struggle with limitations on natural resources. As bones get dug up and used (and even with the La Brea Tar Pits, California’s resources are dwindling fast), the sociological and geopolitical consequences of limited magical resources are interestingly and convincingly explored in the novel. I am reminded of Larry Niven’s “Magic Goes Away” universe, where magic is/was a limited resource that was being used up to the detriment of the civilization based on it. Niven’s The Burning City, co-written with Jerry Pournelle, is even set in an ancient version of Los Angeles. While that novel and universe has magic as a limited resource that gets used up, Van Eekout’s idea of magic as a limited resource provides opportunities for more nuance and more possibilities in its ramifications.

The references and allusions in the book are a real treat as well. The mysterious Emma, the inside wo(man) that Daniel’s crime boss attaches to his team to break into the Ossuary has a subplot and an agenda that reminded me of a very particular Emma Frost storyline from Marvel comics. And for all that, Greg is hardly aping the character; he puts his own spin and twist on the idea. And there are plenty of smaller touches that show the genre television and books and other subgenres of fantasy that Greg has, like an osteomancer himself, taken the bones of and incorporated into himself and his work. And even beyond genrel I never expected an allusion to scientist Jared Diamond’s work in a fantasy novel.

A few action beats, especially in the finale, could have been clearer and more carefully delineated, I think. I also think that the world that Greg creates here is a little too conservatively hewn to our own timeline and world. In this, California Bones reminds me of Harry Turtledove’s The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, which is set in a magitech world — and in Los Angeles at that. Like in that book, the world is broadly the same, with the same polities and only a few small changes (Nixon, in Turtledove’s book, was not President, but rather a used magic carpet salesman). While California Bones does change the political landscape of California by making it into two independent political entities, the rest of the world (and history heretofore) seems unambitiously the same as in ours. Perhaps subsequent novels will make that clearer. And I would have loved a map of the alternate Los Angeles, especially since this Los Angeles has canals. Yes, canals (the power of having a hydromancer around, and those knowledgeable about California history will not be surprised as to who that hydromancer is).

Despite these niggles, California Bones is a lot of fun, entertaining, chock full of magic, action and character bits that kept me turning pages. The Leverage style plot of the main portion of the book gives the center of this novel as much heft and weight as its opening and denouement, and that is something a lot of fantasy novels fall down on. And, most importantly,  I want to see more of the world and the characters, and look forward to a chance to do so.

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