The Bone Maker: A solid novel

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

There’s a point almost exactly halfway through Sarah Beth Durst’s latest novel, The Bone Maker (2021), where the author teases us that the book we’ve been reading just might go in a completely different direction, prompting me to write in my notes, “Love this.” And then, well, it didn’t. Instead, as if the inertia were too great, we’re shortly steered back into a well-worn fantasy story, which, despite being mostly satisfying — with some moments that rose above that level and a few that pulled it below — had me wishing I could have gone back to that moment fifty-three percent of the way in and chosen the plot less traveled.

Twenty-five years ago, Kreya led her crew of magic-users (husband Jentt and friends Zera, Stran, and Marso) to victory in the Bone War, when an evil bone maker illegally used human bones to create an army of nearly unkillable constructs. Jentt died in that victory, and the others scattered, mostly losing touch with one another. Unbeknownst to her friends, though, Kreya has been using Elkor’s spells to resurrect her husband periodically for a limited time. Having run out of bones, though, Kreya looks up her old friend Zera and convinces her to return to the battlefield (now a Forbidden Zone) to recover more. There, they discover that Elkor may in fact not be dead, leading them to gather the team once more to try and save the world yet again.

The premise is a positive beginning for a few reasons. One, I like the morally grey area Durst places us in from the very beginning, and that grey permeates the novel, with Durst never letting us forget just how questionable some of the characters’ choices are. She even offers up a backstory for the “dark wizard” that draws a line, if a crooked one, between Elkor and Kreya, one that makes both Kreya and the reader none too comfortable. The idea of a job unfinished, if not wholly original, is still more fresh than the usual plucky-band-of-heroes-facing-evil storyline. Here, the execution is a bit more mixed, with Durst sometimes doing a nice job of showing how these characters aren’t the same as their younger selves, within themselves or in their relationships to each other and the wider world. On the other hand, this aspect didn’t seem fully mined for its potential, and outside of a few throwaway lines, I never really had a sense of the true weight of age/experience on these characters.The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

The characters themselves vary in their depth. Kreya and Zera are fully fleshed out, both as individuals and in terms of their relationship. The others, though, are relatively two-dimensional, more types than people: strong family man, tortured soul, etc. And the antagonist, who as noted is given a complicating background, is a pretty off-the-shelf bad guy.

This same issue extends to other aspects of the book. Bone magic is an interesting concept, but is simplistically portrayed, conveniently useful or not depending on plot and with little detailed sense of limitation or craft. Worldbuilding is sufficient to the story but bare bones. And there is an ease to events and possible traumatic events that doesn’t feel fully earned, or feels as if we’re just skimming along a safe surface. At one point, given the slight nature of many of the elements, I checked to see if it was a YA book, as it had that sort of overall feel to it (I don’t believe it is, but I can’t swear to that). Other aspects were more problematic than simply being thin: a number of times logistics of time, distance, or action were somewhat muddy or questionable enough to pull me out of the story; several moments were implausible in their action or inaction, and the ending was more than a little anticlimactic.

In the end, these issues were, if not outweighed, at least balanced by the fluid nature of Durst’s prose, the easy, often humorous banter/dialog amongst the crew, some moving emotional moments, by Zera’s vibrant character, and by the aforementioned moral complexity lying at the core of the story. The Bone Maker is a solid novel, but I sure would have liked to read that other one Durst hinted at partway through.

Published in March 2021. From award-winning author Sarah Beth Durst, a standalone epic fantasy set in a brand-new world of towering mountains and sparkling cities, in which a band of aging warriors have a second chance to defeat dark magic and avenge a haunting loss. Twenty-five years ago, five heroes risked their lives to defeat the bone maker Eklor — a corrupt magician who created an inhuman army using animal bones. But victory came at a tragic price. Only four of the heroes survived. Since then, Kreya, the group’s leader, has exiled herself to a remote tower and devoted herself to one purpose: resurrecting her dead husband. But such a task requires both a cache of human bones and a sacrifice — for each day he lives, she will live one less. She’d rather live one year with her husband than a hundred without him, but using human bones for magic is illegal in Vos. The dead are burned — as are any bone workers who violate the law. Yet Kreya knows where she can find the bones she needs: the battlefield where her husband and countless others lost their lives. But defying the laws of the land exposes a terrible possibility. Maybe the dead don’t rest in peace after all. Five warriors — one broken, one gone soft, one pursuing a simple life, one stuck in the past, and one who should dead. Their story should have been finished. But evil doesn’t stop just because someone once said, “the end.”

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I’d like to read this one.

    I think she does a good job generally of creating shades of gray.

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