Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans

Of Bone and Thunder, by Chris Evans
Publisher: Gallery Books
ISBN: 1451679319
496 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Sometimes getting behind on reviews can have its benefits. For example, I’ve gotten to think about this novel for longer after finishing it than I expected. When about halfway through Chris Evans’ Of Bone and Thunder I was still finding it hard to get into, appreciate, or particularly enjoy. Upon finishing it I had a hard time figuring out what of substance I could even say about it.
Upon reflection I realized that my failure to be drawn into the novel stemmed largely from it just not being what I thought it would be, of being the novel I probably unreasonably wanted it to be. Perhaps you’ve read a book with the same mindset and results? Once accepting the novel for what it actually intends to be I find a deeper appreciation for it, and Evans’ “daring” to try something a little different. Though I’ve grown to appreciate several aspects of the novel, some problems still remain in my mind.
Unreasonable reader expectations began with the novel’s marketing description as “Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings”. I’m always wary of such comparisons to authors or works, so this wasn’t a strong expectation for me at least. But it may be for other readers. Of Bone and Thunder is a fantasy novel with allegorical themes recalling the Vietnam War. So those titles only serve as overused proxies for highly recognized associations with ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Fantasy’. Evans’ novel has little to nothing in common with the plots or styles of Coppola’s film (or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) or Tolkien’s trilogy.
Of Bone and Thunder keeps sharp focus on a handful of characters who are soldiers waging war in the land of Luitox for a distant kingdom (The Kingdom). Their enigmatic enemy are the Slyts, a reclusive jungle-inhabiting people skilled at guerilla-style tactics. Beyond the conventional warfare of the common soldiers, the conflict hinges on the power of – and intelligence gathered by thaums (as in thaumaturge) on each side. Balancing their handicap of unfamiliar territory and foe, the Kingdom also has the advantage of flight, in the form of lethal, but volatile, dragons.
One thing Evans does very effectively is include a cast of characters who span the class spectrum of the Kingdom’s military: thaum, commander, dragon-tender, common soldier, covert op, etc. For most of the novel these characters are largely skewed to the male gender – as it would be if it were actually the Vietnam War, but gradually some female characters enter the novel, and thankfully in ways that don’t just involve romantic interest for the men – though that over-worn path is still traveled.
With a focus on individuals of the Kingdom, the novel captures a sense of their psychology and trauma, fighting what seems an almost pointless campaign against an enemy barely known for a distant ruling class that is barely familiar itself. These parallels to Vietnam are blatant, and rather familiar.
And here is where I really wanted Of Bone and Thunder to be something else. Glimpses of the Slyts kept making me want to see and know more about them – their reality and point of view on this war – and see less of the American proxies of the Kingdom. At first it seemed unclear if the Slyts really existed as the propaganda and rumors of the Kingdom said, or if they were even remotely threatening. Written truly different from the recognizably human members of the Kingdom, the Slyt society seemed less a direct version of the Vietnamese and therefore has great potential for deeper, unique development in what is a fantasy novel. But a novel from the point of view of the Slyts are not what this is.
Ultimately how much  a reader may enjoy Of Bone and Thunder may come down to whether it is read as a developed fantasy that recalls aspects of the Vietnam war, versus a novel of the Vietnam War where some elements are swapped out with some fantastic entity, like dragons. For me, some parts of the novel recalled the pulp style writing that science fiction magazines have consciously tried to avoid, like a scene from a Western where guns are simply replaced with lasers, cowboy is replaced with spaceman, etc.
I finished Of Bone and Thunder somewhat perplexed over why it was ever written as a fantasy, and not just as a mainstream novel of the Vietnam War. I was left with the thought that perhaps it’s because the themes and elements of the war are already well-tread. The fantasy aspect and exploration of using dragons or mage-combat in warfare is the draw for this. As long as you enter into the novel with a better sense of what to expect in terms of the story’s focus and find that intriguing – or simply enjoy well-written dialogue and characters in a fantasy setting such as this – the novel is one to check out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Bad Things in Threes, Thanksgiving, and a New Season to Come

I apologize for too long a period of inactivity here, particular to publishers who made their books available, but I haven’t gotten reviews up as of yet. They are coming.

They say bad things happen in threes. My mother passed away several months back and since then two additional family deaths came, all as I have been writing scientific manuscripts, completing research, starting the search process for a faculty position, and all sorts of other stuff.

But Thanksgiving is now upon us here in the US and I’m looking forward to the start of a new season and soon a new year. I wanted to take the opportunity to say a broad thank you to followers, to the many publishers and authors who have made their work available, and to the connections to material provided by Goodreads, NetGalley, Edelweiss, and Blogging for Books.

By year’s end I’ll have read a little over 200 books, many of those ARCs or newly published works, and in early January I plan on posting my favorite picks from the year.

Reading is far quicker and easier than writing. I’ve managed to keep up on the pile of reading, but have gotten quite backlogged in reviews, which I hope to clear/catch up on in the next weeks. Here is a list of reviews to come from my completed reading. Perhaps to whet your appetite, but also for my own organization!

– The Blood of Angels, by Johanna Sinisalo (to be featured on Skiffy & Fanty)
– Of Bone and Thunder
, by Chris Evans
Cheese and Microbes, Edited by Catherine Donnelly (to be featured on Small Things Considered)
– Solaris Rising 3, Edited by Ian Whates (may be featured on Skiffy & Fanty?)
– The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis
– California, by Edan Lepucki
– 300,000,000, by Blake Butler
– The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, 2014, Edited by Paula Guran
– Black Swan, White Raven, Edited by Ellen Datlow
– Mr. Wicker, by Maria Alexander
– Confronting Contagion: Our Evolving Understanding of Disease, by Melvin Santer (to be featured on Small Things Considered)
Last Train to Babylon, by Charlee Fam
Gifts for the One Who Comes After, by Helen Marshall
Fire in the Blood (Forgotten Realms), by Erin M. Evans
Crude Carrier, by Rex Burns
They Do the Same Things Different There, by Robert Shearman
The Fifth Vertex, by Kevin Hoffmann
The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko (to be featured on Skiffy & Fanty)
– The Galaxy Game, by Karen Lord
Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara, Edited by Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
Near Enemy, by Adam Sternbergh

Phew, well I guess I better get writing. Stay tuned for this all and more still to come from current/future reads. Thank you again, everyone.

Robogenesis, by Daniel H. Wilson

Robogenesis, by Daniel H. Wilson
(Robopocalypse #2)
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385537093
384 pages, hardcover
Published: 10th June 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

 Any consideration of Wilson’s recent Robogenesis inevitably involves comparison to its predecessor Robopocalypse. I wouldn’t recommend picking up this sequel until you’ve read the first book. If you have read it, your opinion about the first volume won’t necessarily translate over into this middle volume of an apparent trilogy. While keeping many of the basic structural and technological elements of Robopocalypse, Robogenesis tells a different kind of apocalyptic tale, with a very different tone.
Robogenesis opens immediately following the events that close Robopocalypse, with humanity seemingly defeating the robotic leader and instigator of the robot uprising and resulting war in the first book. The reader quickly discovers that the enemy of the first book may not have necessarily been the evil one would think, and as actually implied in the first book, the robotic intelligence may actually have instigated the uprising for the ultimate, long-term benefit and salvation of humanity. In short, a far greater robotic malevolence lurks in the technological background, intent on really destroying humanity.
Starting in on Robogenesis I was delighted to see how the plot was unfolding. Unanswered questions from the previous book (which still could stand well as a stand-alone novel) led me to think there must be much more going on behind the robot uprising historically chronicled in its pages.
Robopocalypse suffered somewhat from a plot that lacked in the unexpected. The general robotic apocalypse plot is hardly new, and the outcome of this particular one, and the survival of key protagonists is certain from the start. By virtue of its construction as a series of recollections, each chapter projects the key events and outcomes to come with biographical/historical introductions that just grated on me.
By pulling a big twist and going into new territory, Wilson makes Robogenesis far more compelling. The general apocalyptic plot here – human survival of devastation and attempts to rebuild from war and a collapse of civilization – is generally familiar, but Wilson really takes it in interesting directions with robotic technology  and action he is so skilled at relating. Even better, the ultimate outcome for the characters and state of the world for the novel’s end is not projected. (Chapters still have the same style as in Robopocalypse with introductions that explain some of what is to come though).
Robopocalypse had a roughly chronological organization with one consistent human narrator (at least in introductions) despite multiple points of view. Robogenesis with its increased complexity is organized more according to point of view character sections, making it less cohesive despite a consistent robotic narrator for introductions. This unfortunately can make the story a bit harder to follow (keep track of details of character and setting, e.g.), particularly if one picks the book up amid significant breaks from reading it.
The greatest strength of Robopocalypse continues to hold true for Robogenesis. The robotic characters are fascinating. With this novel many appear more human – emotional – than the majority of those in the first book, but their personalities both on the ‘good’ side or ‘evil’ side are fascinating. Equally fascinating to science fiction fans (or technology fiction fans more so) is Wilson’s inclusion of relevant robotic science and speculation, presented in action that flows like projected from a camera.
While the scientific background and details in the novel are seriously done here, the overall style of it like Robopocalypse is simple, pulpish entertainment and adventure. Popcorn cinema. Yet, Wilson wrote the first novel with a profound sense of optimism, and even wonder. In Robogenesis Wilson does the reverse. The overt robot-human war of book one has turned to a covert robot presence that actively provokes human-human conflicts in their struggles of apocalyptic recovery. The tone thereby becomes grim and any sense of wonder over the technological abilities of robots and their intelligence turns to elements of absolute horror with human cruelty, gory flesh violently destroyed by machine, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. A bit of this existed in the first novel, but is increased here.
This tone fits the stereotypical atmosphere of ‘middle’ works in a trilogy, particularly those in film – and Wilson’s series and writing are certainly cinematic. Not a surprise, and not inherently a good or bad choice, I found it works well for Robogenesis, but other reader’s may be averse to the negative intensity.
Thus, even with similar structural flaws in how the story is told from my opinion, I found the story of Robogenesis far more enjoyable, and appreciated its dark tone that is likely to turn brighter for the third novel. Yet, while the first novel can be just read on its own, this reads as something that cannot exist without links to Robopocalypse and the third novel to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.