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.

The Hour of the Innocents, by Robert Paston

The Hour of the Innocents
by Robert Paston
Publisher: Forge Books
ISBN: 0765326817
320 pages, hardcover
Published: 20th May 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I ignorantly assumed that the Tor and Forge imprints of Macmillan were both for science fiction and fantasy, exclusively. The Hour of the Innocents then came as a surprise as I made my way into the novel and realized this wasn’t the case. Yet, this unmet expectation may have actually enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the novel because that was the only real unexpected element in this reading experience. This fictional story of a late 1960’s rock band is grounded in a historical reality, the characters are familiar types, and the plot proceeds fairly predictably. However, for all its familiarity, Paston writes the novel with a passionate authenticity and clear voice, making it a piece of nostalgic entertainment with bittersweet fondness for an era of extreme power both high and low.

The story is related from the point of view of Will, the newest member of a rural Pennsylvania rock band. A devoted musician, practicing his guitar with every chance he has, Will is cursed with a fine appreciation of music and its power, but little ability at playing. His personality and talent at songwriting are noticed by Mattie, however, a phenomenally talented guitar player who has just returned home from the traumatic experiences of Vietnam. More intelligent, mature, and talented than any of the other band members, Mattie’s only ambition, only need, is seemingly to play and experience the emotional healing, or coping, that can provide. Yet, the reader slowly discovers Mattie has other strong emotional ties and responsibilities to family, friends, and military relations that fight against all music accomplishes in his life.

Just as Mattie battles even upon his return from Vietnam between a simple life of music and the burdens of his past and his relations, so too does Will battle between balancing the wild, open rock-and-roll culture of the time with desires for the band to make it professionally. Key to this is Frankie, the flamboyant lead singer of the band, who draws crowds, and girls, but creates problems with his irresponsibility and disregard for his wife, who has a past with Mattie, and an attraction for Will.

Rounded out with the band’s drummer, the member we see and hear much less from, and who like all band drummers (we are told) handle the finances, The Innocents are born. Each is an archetype of rock music – the wild frontman who sings, the strong, silent-type guitar player with exceptional musical talent, the level-headed keeps-to-himself drummer, and the songwriter, full of self-doubt. They all share in a common hope, a dream of making it, success that will give them the freedom to just write and play music that can soothe their souls, and touch others. The Hour of the Innocents is about the birth of this all, and the rough road of imperfect personalities and troubled actions that lie in the path to realization of that dream.

What ends up occurring in the novel is therefore no big surprise given the set up. What makes it work is precisely how true to life, how familiar, Paston writes it. You can tell that Paston is just as passionate about the music and this time as his characters.Though brief, the chapters dealing with Vietnam directly or its aftermath, are vivid and moving, and are examples of the more unique moments in the novel, the verses to the more familiar band-member-interaction refrains of the composition.

The Hour of the Innocents will be of interest to anyone with an appreciation for rock music and its history, and to those who would appreciate the backdrop of the era as setting for literary exploration of character interaction, as long as the character familiarity and plot predictability can be overlooked for enjoyment of the journey.

Four Stars out of Five

The Frangipani Hotel, by Violet Kupersmith

The Frangipani Hotel,
by Violet Kupersmith
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
ASIN: B00FO5Z9Z2
256 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Caught between two worlds. This statement could apply equally to the living characters in this collection of short stories, and the ghosts that haunt them. The types of ghosts vary between stories and even within, from the literal sense, to the metaphoric sense of past history haunting the present, or a distant homeland or heritage haunting new life in America. United by shadows of Vietnam, its culture, and these themes of haunting and straddling worlds, Kupersmith’s debut is quite impressive.

Though featuring ghosts, these stories fit into a genre category of fantasy more than horror, except in a very classical sense. None of the stories are particularly scary, though they are spiced with an atmosphere, or at times an ambiguity that could be considered disturbing. Although being grounded in Vietnamese culture and traditional ghost stories, these tales remind me greatly both in content and style of the classic ghost stories by M.R. James, a type of Vietnamese gothic if one can imagine that. Beyond genre, they can quite easily be classified as literary, with a rich, descriptive style of sentences that sing atmospheric melodies in the reader’s ear to firmly establish the mood of the collection, taking the setting beyond exotic to eerie.

The stories that stand out strongest in my mind a week or so after reading the collection are three: the one giving its name to the title of the book, featuring a thirsty ghost haunting a family who runs a run-down hotel, one with a Vietnamese-American girl struggling with issues of self image and weight who is sent to her visit her grandmother back in the foreign homeland, and one where a man is tricked into transporting a very ill looking young man across the Vietnamese countryside, featuring an ominous warning. Each of these stories were powerfully brilliant, easily worth the ‘price of admission’ to the collection, with the latter story being the closest one to approach horror, where the ‘ghost’ actually appears quite unequivocally dangerous, more animal than human.

Kupersmith shows great talent here, and a lot of promise, but I wouldn’t categorize all of the stories here on the same level. While none were poor, several felt less magical or substantial. Moreover, the classic ghost story style employed by Kupersmith (so reminiscent to me of James) includes the format of setting up stories within stories. For instance several stories begin with some characters meeting and one prior to relate a ghostly yarn to the other(s) after something in their conversation brings this mysterious odd event from their past (or a past story they heard related) to mind. The weakest moments of the stories in this collection I felt came when Kupersmith devoted relatively large amounts of text to the characters in these conversations, and the events in their lives that eventually ends up leading to the revelation of the actual ghost story. At best the meta-connections between ‘story’ and ‘story within story’ become clear and revelatory. Frequently though this wasn’t clear to me and I finished the story wishing a fair bit of it had ended up cut out during editing.

As a collection of literary short fiction with fantastic and cultural spins, “The Frangipani Hotel: Stories” is not astounding, but it is really good and well-worth reading for anyone who likes short stories, and particularly to those who have some kind of ties to Vietnam or an affection for classic-style ghost stories. Beyond Vietnam, many of the stories also take place in Houston. So that, coupled with Kupersmith’s background from the Philly area, certainly led to a strong geographic affinity for me with her, despite my knowing little of Vietnam. Even with no connection to the material here, however, this collection is noteworthy, if just simply for an introduction to an exciting talent whose writing it bears keeping eyes upon.

Five Stars out of Five