March 04, 2021


The Bone Maker. By Sarah Beth Durst. Harper Voyager. $17.99.

     A well-structured, well-written, well-paced novel with some questionable central elements that make it less appealing than it could have been, Sarah Beth Durst’s The Bone Maker has enough intriguing parts to pull a great many readers into its world even if some of those readers end up deciding they would just as soon be elsewhere. At the heart of the issues with the book is that Durst is a creator of fantasy series, in which she takes the time to develop multiple characters and create in-depth versions of believable worlds. But The Bone Maker is a single, standalone book, and while that makes for a slew of opportunities to speed the action and press on with plot points, it also undercuts some of Durst’s major authorial strengths. The book ends up feeling a touch superficial, a bit like a young-adult novel even though it is quite clearly intended as heroic fantasy for older readers – ones who will appreciate and empathize with the five middle-aged heroes around whom the story is structured.

     Foundationally, this is a story of what happens after “happily ever after.” The tale looks back to a time 25 years earlier, when Kreya – the “bone maker” of the title – chose four others to help her defeat an evil magician named Eklor, who also used bones to further his ends, but whose ends were nefarious ones (the comparative absence of attention paid to Eklor’s background and motivations is one of the flaws in The Bone Maker that Durst would likely have addressed in a multi-book series). Banding together with Kreya were Zera, who creates animal-bone talismans that bring their users power, strength and speed; Marso, a bone reader who can see the past, present and future; Stran, a powerful warrior made even stronger through bone magic; and Jentt, a onetime thief who is Kreya’s husband and who is adept at using talismans of speed and stealth. The book gives little time and little authorial attention to Marso and Stran – another element that would likely have been corrected in a series – and not much more to Jentt, who dies in the battle against Eklor and whom Kreya is determined to resurrect, even though every day of his new life requires her own time among the living to be shortened by a day.

     Kreya is the central figure here, but Zera is a useful foil, often a scene-stealer thanks to her providing a level of dry humor that helps prevent the book from being entirely dark all the time. Still, most of the book is dark, including Kreya’s musings on what, if anything, really makes her all that different from Eklor: “Maybe there were no perfect choices for anyone to make, hero or villain. …Some of us are better at hiding it than others, but we are all broken. You can’t live without breaking a few times.”

     The Bone Maker is essentially a sequel to an earlier fantasy that was not written, the story of the war against Eklor and the toll it took on those who defeated him. “Defeated,” it turns out, does not mean “destroyed,” because the plot here revolves around Eklor having survived and having begun rebuilding his bone-based army. Kreya discovers this when she enlists Zera’s help recovering unburied bones left on the battlefield of the long-ago war: Kreya needs those bones to resurrect Jentt, but the use of human bones is very strictly forbidden in this world of Vos (exactly why is never explained; again, a story told at greater length would likely have gotten into this topic). The Faulknerian notion that “the past is never dead – it’s not even past” is central to The Bone Maker, and in fact Durst relies rather too heavily on the legendary reputations of the heroic band: the action in the current crisis seems somewhat truncated, and the conclusion of the book is rather rushed and superficial. In fact, the world building, at which Durst usually excels, is also on the superficial side: Vos has the usual faux-medieval elements so common in heroic fantasy, and overall seems rather primitive; but on the other hand, it has cable cars and crawling carriages (propelled by magic). Once again, if Durst had had time and inclination to delve more deeply into the history of this world and the way it became what it is, the story would have felt heftier.

     Despite the many shortcomings in specific elements, though, The Bone Maker is an involving read for anyone who appreciates Kreya’s musings and enjoys the intricacies of bone-magic use and the after-the-supposed-ending nature of the tale. The ways the long-ago heroes have drifted apart and tried to manage their lives since the decades-ago defeat of Eklor ring with believability, and their willingness to get together once more to finish what they started – while scarcely an original concept – lends the story a sense of inevitability, combined with despair at the need to dredge up long-gone events and their consequences, and complete tasks thought to have been finished many years back. It is certainly true that there is predictability to the plot – of course Eklor will again be defeated, for good this time – but it is also true that there are enough twists and turns in the tale, along with some enjoyable banter among the reunited heroes, to maintain reader interest in The Bone Maker. Whether Durst will do other standalone fantasies, perhaps a bit more adeptly than she has done this one, or will continue to focus primarily on the greater breadth made possible by multi-book series, remains to be seen. Certainly The Bone Maker shows that Durst can, if she wishes, handle herself well when working in single-novel form – even though it also shows that, in heroic fantasy, greater length can more than make up in depth of tale-telling for what it, by definition, lacks in brevity.

No comments:

Post a Comment