✎Title: Of Bone and Thunder
✎Author: Chris Evans
✎Publisher: Gallery Books
✎Publication date: 14th October 2014
Of Bone and Thunder is a singularly exceptional book. It’s not a book I enjoyed as much as other reads this year, and as such received four stars and not five—but that’s not why it’s exceptional. Read on some, and I’ll explain.
Of Bone and Thunder is a military fantasy story. Usually, this would turn me off right away. It didn’t with the Iron Elves, because, well, I have a long-standing weakness for elves and so, I read it and before long, when I realised it was in fact heavily military inspired, I was already hooked. I went into this book knowing how large a part the military theme would play, and I was a little nervous. I do not like military stories. In fact, I do not like the military, one bit. If I lived in the world of Divergent, I would be placed in either Erudite or Amity. I have an intense dislike of military action, guns, bombs, etc. I vehemently loathe the topic and will not watch movies, play games or (ordinarily) read books that are military-themed.
But… that’s where Of Bone and Thunder is a powerful experience that supersedes its predecessor. Where the Iron Elves focussed more on the separate lives and adventures of its main characters, largely inviting us to follow the regiment as people instead of a unit, introducing civilian characters such as Rallie and Visyna, Of Bone and Thunder is wholly and entirely a story of war and the people caught in that war. The soldiers, their unit as a whole, their superiors, their dragons.
Evans presents a world where dragons—rags—essentially replace planes, and a new, strange ethereal magic becomes the technology that traces and tracks nearby aircraft and allows for communication between the rag pilots. It was confusing to imagine at first, since the description felt so unique and unlike anything I’d read before in the way of magic, but once I started thinking of the rags as aircraft in themselves, the image coalesced into an unusual and unique expression of an air fleet.
I know very little about the time period mirrored in Of Bone and Thunder, the Vietnamese war. War makes me feel icky, past, present, whatever. Plus, whatever I may have once known about it has long been replaced by other knowledge, so besides the bare bones of the period, I entered into the book not really knowing what to expect. In many ways, this made the experience better, because instead of being a story that mirrored a period, I read a book that was constantly intriguing, surprising and always offering a new theme or question.
The book follows, mainly, the story of Red Shield, a crossbow unit sent into a foreign land to fight a slow war against the Slyts, an enemy force impossible to track down and even harder to beat. The war stretches on with no end in sight, with propaganda at home assuring the common folk that the glorious war is marching on towards its goal. With a king revealed as illegitimate and the political situation unsure, neither home nor abroad knows a sense of settled calm or peace. Chaos, subtle or otherwise, reigns.
Afield of the Kingdom and its affairs, Red Shield trek through the jungles and mountains of an inhospitable land, in search of the enemy. Tensions rise as new methods of warfare are introduced on both sides and tempers hit boiling point as conditions suffer. Drugs, drink and sex offer fleeting escapes, but in the Lux there really is no escaping the war that grinds on day after day. We also follow the introduction of new technology (the ethereal magic) into an established squadron of rags and pilots, including the arrival of female mages. Along with the dwarves, the introduction of new and different aspects to the war effort is not something that runs smoothly.
In the end, it’s clear there won’t be so much a victor, as the side that survived the most. In this case, that could be both sides—or neither. The war is a messy, expensive endeavour that is slowly wearing the life from its soldiers, one way or another.
Of Bone and Thunder made me think; it made me stop and consider the single aspect that I tend to overlook when thinking anti-war and anti-military thoughts. The soldiers are only soldiers. They go where they’re told, do what they’re told. On a base level, saying I am anti-military is at least a small insult to those in the army, those doing the fighting. And that’s wrong. What is so exceptional about this book is that it made me stop and think about the soldiers in Red Shield, made me listen to their stories, to who they are. The characters of the men of Red Shield are expertly expressed, subtle but powerful and lasting. The soldiers of Red Shield are a varied selection of men, all with different stories and different views. It is easy to get lost in their story, to forget about everything happening in the rest of their world, and focus solely on these men.
On Big Hog and his constant commentary on farming and land analysis. On Carny and his respect for his mother and women, his problem with drugs. On Knockers and his nerves and fear at being the new guy, on his fierce loyalty. On Listowk and his unwavering dedication to his men. Of Bone and Thunder is their story. It’s not a military fantasy in that it talks about warfare and the military machine (even though it does), but that it talks about soldiers. The military machine is present and is analysed, for the most part not favourably. That was enough to please my negative stance on war and the military.
Here we are given a book telling a story of a somewhat (perhaps) pointless, and definitely unwinnable war, and the lives of those caught up in it. We have the recently freed dwarves, whose lives as slaves are still in recent memory enough to cause tension. Themes of drug abuse and racism and misogyny/feminism make Of Bone and Thunder a very smart and relevant book. It is written in a heartfelt, deep and emotive fashion that pins you in place, turning each page with hesitation as to what might happen next, and a desperate need to read deeper into the stories of these men and women.
There are hard parts of the book, parts I wished hadn’t happened, but each and every decision is real and fits with the story Evans is weaving, in the dark and hopeless advance of a war that everyone is questioning, one way or another. The ending is a punch in the gut, followed by a hand to help you up and some arnica cream for the blossoming bruise. The two-part ending is both bitter and then satisfying—like swallowing bitter medicine only to be given some sugar for the taste. It was deftly executed, hard and maddeningly realistic. It would happen.
Everything about the military and military machine that makes me say “I hate the military” is echoed by at least one character in this book, however, the book also served to remind me that the soldiers of the military fall under that umbrella term. I don’t hate the military—I don’t hate Carny and Knockers and Big Hog. I hate the military machine, the endless march of pointless wars and the strong-arm of empires constantly seeking power and using vile methods to achieve it. It felt humbling to be reminded and re-educated by Of Bone and Thunder—and it’s pretty powerful for a book to do that.
The writing is tense and deep, with swift-yet-poignant characterisation and the pacing is as tense and offbeat as the war they’re fighting in. It made for an experience that was at once illuminating and exciting.
I might not have absolutely adored the book the same way I loved the Iron Elves, but I loved Red Shield, I loved the rag squadron and their Thaums. I loved the people of the book—and that’s probably the point, since the dedication is written for the veterans Evans has known and worked with. Which is pretty damn awesome.
Of Bone and Thunder is a stunning read. It is layered and deep and full of questions, Evans’ latest offering is a clever and involving book that really challenges the reader to think and feel. It made me rethink the way I express my distaste for aspects of military action and the military machine—and that’s quite something.
This new novel is engaging and deft and shows that Evans is the king of his subject matter. Absolutely flawless.