Review: California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout (@jessicadhaluska, @gregvaneekhout)

Posted February 6, 2015 by Jessica in Jessica, Reviews, Urban Fantasy / 49 Comments

Review: California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout (@jessicadhaluska, @gregvaneekhout)
California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout
Series: Daniel Blackland #1
Published by Tor Books
Published on: June 10 2014
Genres: Alternate History, Urban Fantasy
Pages: 303
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
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When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.

When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.

Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch's storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian's sword, an object of untold power.

For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There's Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel’s ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.

Extravagant and yet moving, Greg van Eekhout's California Bones is an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality--different from the world we know, yet familiar and true.

freaky CRIME beast

I don’t like to endorse stereotypes, but Urban Fantasy written by male authors is almost universally darker and grittier than UF written by females. Obviously, within that much larger pool there are nonconformists: Stacia Kane, Jane Wells, even Kelley Armstrong sometimes, but on the other side . . . I can’t think of one. You’ve got Simon R. Green’s UF noir, Richard Kadrey’s severed heads kept in the closet for information, and even Jim Butcher, whose Harry Dresden series is decidedly lighter in tone, explodes bodies b/c “GORE. Yes!”

I’m not saying it’s good or bad, it just is. *shrugs*

And California Bones is no exception.

Daniel Blackland lives in an alternate history version of California where magic is real, and the more magic you have, the more powerful you are. The most powerful of all is the Hierarch, who rules Southern California (split from Northern California in a nebulous war) with an iron fist, and cannibalizes anyone he views as a threat.


B/c the Hierarch is an osteomancer, which means that he gets his power from consuming the bones of magical creatures, and yes, humans are under the same umbrella as hydras, griffins, krackens, etc.

And that’s . . . well, that’s beyond the boundaries of my typical comfort zone.

BUT. As gruesome as this world is, it’s also strangely compelling in many ways, not the least of them being Van Eekhout’s insightful writing, like how he captures the first fracture of childhood innocence:

“Do you trust me?”
. . . Daniel loved him with the uncomplicated desperation with which small boys love their fathers. But trust? It had never occurred to Daniel not to trust him. It was like earth. Daniel never wondered if it’d be there when he took a step. Now, the smallest fissures opened in his unquestioning certainty.

*rubs fist over heart*

PLUS this is a heist novel. I love heists. Ocean’s Eleven (Twelve, and Thirteen) are some of the most frequently watched movies at my house, and Inside Man<-----friggin' awesome. Know what else I love? Tacos.

Cassandra unpacked the pieces of her rifle and screwed the barrel into the action.
“One hell of a circus shot,” Jo said skeptically.
“Well, Cassie’s one hell of a clown,” Daniel returned.
“Bet you a taco she doesn’t make it.”
“Bet you two tacos she does.”


So Urban Fantasy + heist + tacos = ALL THE GOOD THINGS.

The characters were pretty great too. Blackland’s crew are not just his colleagues, they’re his family. Moth, a giant of a man who can’t be killed (b/c unforeseen side-effect of I’m-not-telling-you-what-but-there’s-a-legit-reason-I-promise) is probably my favorite, but Cassandra the sniper/lock pick is pretty badass too.

The only real objection I had was how their loyalty to Blackland was repeatedly mentioned. The third time it happened, I went back and started highlighting, b/c OTT, but not too much later, the reason for the overkill was revealed, and while I still felt it had been a bit heavy-handed, I wasn’t straight up annoyed anymore. I don’t know, maybe Van Eekhout tried a different approach in the first draft, but the Reason didn’t make the impact he wanted b/c too subtle. Who knows? Not me. Whatever, the point is that my only specific issue turned out to be half the issue I thought it was.

However, the world-building might frustrate some readers.

I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of the “California will break off from the rest of the States b/c earthquakes” speculation. I have no idea what the legitimacy of that claim is—it sounds ridiculous, but I suppose stranger things have happened. Anyway, for a long time I thought that’s what had happened in this version of California, b/c there aren’t roads, there are canals. And it was strange, people taking one of half a dozen different types of boats that were still referred to as “taxis” and “vans” but were . . . boats. But eventually, it does get explained, and remember that the alternative to the Slow Reveal is the Info Dump, and I infinitely prefer the former.

Overall, California Bones was even better than I’d hoped. I added quite a few beasties to my cryptozoology repertoire, was creepily fascinated by Van Eekhout’s variation of history that, amongst other things, cast Disney (yes, that Disney) as . . . maybe not a villain, but definitely a scary dude, and was gratified by writing of surprising depth on more than one occasion. I’m already halfway through the next book. Highly recommended.

Daniel Blackland:

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My name is Jessica and I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’m trying my hand at writing, but mostly I read. My favorite genres are Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy, and the YA versions of those genres, but if there is a book of a different color getting lots of buzz, I’ll read it too, just to be informed. If I’m not reading or writing, I’m probably on Goodreads or Pinterest or baking blueberry pies because I love them.


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49 responses to “Review: California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout (@jessicadhaluska, @gregvaneekhout)

    • This is the best one that I’ve read in a long time. There’s really no way to compare them (beyond the male author bit) b/c they’re totally different, but this is a series that I’d recommend to any fan of UF.

  1. Nathan ( from reviewbarn)  

    I have wanted to read this book for a while but that is hardly the point right now. Because instead I simply must bring up this book I have read my kid a hundred times by now, Dragons love Tacos. Look it up my friend, your love of tacos may mean you are actually a dragon. Which is cool.
    Nathan ( recently posted…Tough Travels – Evil Lairs

    • Your timing is hilarious. Next Friday’s review is of Seraphina, and the beginning is all about how cool it would be to be a dragon, LOL. But maybe I already am. My sister will be so jealous 😉

  2. I hadn’t noticed that male authors write darker UF. Weird. I just reviewed this last week too! Yeah usually a book about cannibals wouldn’t be for me, but this magic system was so awesome! Inside Man is the best heist movie ever! I loved the taco jokes too. (He even put them in the acknowledgements) I agree, I wasn’t a fan of the loyalty thing. Nice review!
    Molly Mortensen recently posted…California Bones and Pacific Fire by Greg Van Eekhout (Double Spoiler Free Review)

    • Yeah, I’ve read lots of gory female authors too, but to me at least, when the author is male (of UF especially), the overall feel of the book is different. Like Braine said a few comments up—more business/less emotional. Sometimes I feel like an observer rather than a participant. Van Eekhout somehow manages to fit that description, yet I didn’t feel the distance that I usually do. *shrugs*

  3. Okay…so that world-building definitely sounds hit or miss. Hmm, the author could have explained it earlier though, uh? The canal, taxi thing. ANYWAY, you still loved it!!! Which means that I shall check it out!!

    PS. I’m sorry to say this, Jessica, but I kinda DNFed Burn for Me. I’m sorry!! XD It did not work for me…the romance, the MC. Ah well…
    Lola recently posted…Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness & Jim Kay

    • Yeah, I’m seeing that you shouldn’t follow my example in the books-with-romance dept. Our tastes are very different.

      ALSO—“definitely sounds hit or miss” . . . *snickers*

    • Yeah, this was seriously cool. And I’m exactly like you on the being forewarned bit. As long as I know in advance . . . it’s cool (b/c don’t like surprises . . . not that kind anyway). Never really thought about it though, and now I’m feeling old and crotchety, LOL.

  4. I would also add: Seanan McGuire, Lilith Saintcrow, Vicki Pettersson, and there are some others I can’t remember at the moment.

    I LOVE BOOKS WITH GORE. I especially love it when instead of writing flowery kissy scenes, the author is prosing the shit out of the gore scenes. YESSSSSSSSSSSS.

    Ahhhh yes. You are a taco freak like me. I knew we could get a long, dear Jessica.

    This actually looks like a fun book.
    Brigid recently posted…Stacking the Shelves

    • I’m sure you’re right. I’ve only read the first book in that series, but yes, I agree that it was off to a dark start, and with Bishop, I’m sure it only got darker from there 😉

    • I don’t know if it was b/c of other reviews I’d read or something else, but I didn’t stumble over the osteomancy (except for the ick factor), and YES, the heist aspect was awesome. ALSO, the tacos 😉 And I really liked the second book too, fyi.

  5. Osteomancer?!! And this: “added quite a few beasties to my cryptozoology repertoire, was creepily fascinated by Van Eekhout’s variation of history.” This sounds like something I might enjoy – dark and gritty can be good right?!! And hey, let’s not talk about CA breaking off into chunks and landing in the ocean. Ever see some of our fault lines up close – scary. Lol. This is something totally new, but I’m intrigue for sure.
    Thanks for the great review Jessica 🙂