Monday, June 9, 2014

Swords and Sorcerers on the Sunset Strip

Greg van Eekhout, California Bones

Daniel Blackland, son of wizardry, wants none of his legendary father’s power. He watched the Hierarch of Southern California eat his father’s flesh to steal his power, so Daniel lives outside society, a penny-ante grifter keeping quiet. When a state traitor offers him the chance to burgle the Hierarch’s wizarding storehouse, though, Daniel gets his old gang back together for one last job. He only discovers too late how many lies pretty smiles can conceal.

I ought to hate this book. The author uses so many wheezy fantasy stereotypes that it resembles a genre checklist: the Boy Who Lived, magical genetic engineering pioneered by Jeff VanderMeer, even the apocalyptic confrontation common from Rowling, Tolkein, and every Holy Writ ever. Van Eekhout name-checks every fantasy cliché that ever existed. Yet I stayed up late to finish this book, genuinely concerned about these characters and their conflict. This novel surpasses its boilerplates.

Daniel, our hero, comes from a long line of osteomancers: bone wizards, who extract power from ancient fossils. Unfortunately, the most powerful magic creatures are long extinct, their fossils almost depleted, and the Hierarch has started consuming his subjects to prolong his magically extended reign. If the symbolism sounds pointed, I won’t disagree; on a superficial level, van Eekhout has written a very political novel. But the real allegory runs much deeper, defying flippant summary.

Van Eekhout’s vision of Hollyweird excess, the jagged gulfs between sunny SoCal mythology and high desert reality, suggests he’s deliberately creating the Great American Fantasy Novel. His brisk storytelling, backed by convincingly breezy Los Angeles speech rhythms, suggest a vision more ambitious than yet another sword-and-sorcery adventure. Daniel Blackland’s very existence outside the system threatens existing power structures. Corporations and kings fear his individuality. When society values subservience, van Eekhout subtly declares, originality is treason.

Los Angeles icons, from William Mulholland to Walt Disney, populate this story, their lives artificially prolonged, careers dedicated to upholding the Hierarch’s status quo. (Van Eekhout uses the word Hierarch frequently. You do the math.) This techno-feudal bureaucracy conceals true power: the Hierarch appears only at either end of this novel. By keeping the people entertained, satiated, and confused, this invisible government maintains a pecking order Angelenos cannot question, because it has become completely invisible.

When a rogue agent helps Daniel’s crew infiltrate the Ossuary, the storehouse of bones that keeps the Hierarch alive and enthroned, we realize somebody’s lying. It’s a waiting game to discover who. Ordinary relationships—Daniel’s ability to make friends and truly love—have political implications he cannot see, except in hindsight. Seasoned fantasy readers expect betrayal, conspiracy, and that final, Voldemort-ish confrontation. Van Eekhout delivers every plot point genre readers expect, but in subversive ways.

In a parallel narrative, Inspector Gabriel Argent unearths Daniel’s plan, taking his discoveries to the authorities. Gabriel is everything Daniel is not: magicless, compliant, cozy with authority. But for reasons too intricate to restate, Gabriel finds himself fleeing his state employers while his city burns. Gabriel wants ordinariness, but finds that if he doesn’t rebel, something inside him slowly dies. His desire for a blandly peaceful life seemingly contains the seeds of its own destruction.

Thus, van Eekhout’s message. The cop who can’t remain loyal to forces keeping him subservient and ignorant. The hero who tries to live a normal life, but finds himself pulled inexorably toward something greater. Van Eekhout builds a heroic fantasy around sunny Left Coast mythology, but this isn’t about some alternate California, with wizards brewing bones under the Santa Monica pier. Something important dies, he warns, when loyal citizens submissively refuse to step outside ourselves.

Not that it isn’t also a rollicking fantasy. Van Eekhout spins a heist yarn, with relatably flawed antiheroes keeping barely ahead of unimaginable, but invisible, evil they only partly understand. He dribbles out familiar fantasy tropes, they suddenly upends our expectations, or blindsides us with Poe-level grotesqueries that never become quite ordinary. Readers who don’t share van Eekhout’s anti-authoritarian philosophy can nevertheless enjoy sudden bouts of action, magical confrontations, and plenty of juicily scary monsters.

But van Eekhout isn’t satisfied giving us what we already know. In an era when organized traditionalists apparently fight for the right to serve their corporate overlords, van Eekhout reminds readers that humans exist apart from the machines that grind us. The forces of uniform blandness dominating public life, and the bought-and-paid-for legislators who serve them, want you to shut up. Van Eekhout says we become human only when we rise and break our chains.

No comments:

Post a Comment