Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Review: Bone Dance: A Fantasy for Technophiles by Emma Bull

Speculative fiction has long had a love affair with post-apocalyptic fiction—just in this last year alone M. R. Carey’s massive hit The Girl With All the Gifts took the science-fiction and fantasy communities by storm. But sometimes even the big releases in genre can end up left behind by history, and unfortunately this seems to have happened to Bone Dance by Emma Bull.

Emma Bull’s best known work is War for the Oaks, a hit novel that helped pioneer what we think of when we imagine urban fantasy: spunky female lead, contemporary real-world setting, and mythical creatures hidden from modern society. She has written other works, including Finder and her 2007 effort, Territory. Bone Dance, a science-fantasy, was released in 1991 and went on to be nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. So how is the novel itself?

The plot is set in a world after a nuclear war between the Americas. It’s hard to put into words, and I don’t want to spoil anything, so I recommend just reading a spoiler-filled review or, better yet, check it out for yourself. Unique for a fantasy effort, its magic involves both technology (it is subtitled A Fantasy for Technophiles, after all) and Louisiana Voodoo. Creatively, each chapter is named for a Tarot card. Most of Bone Dance’s setting is left unexplored outside of some of the characters’ backstories, so I found the sense of place to be one of the novel’s more disappointing aspects.

In terms of characters, they are well-drawn. Our narrator is Sparrow, a character who is neither man nor woman (though it has a fantasy explanation, so it’s iffy regarding representation); they're also asexual. Sparrow makes a living as a trader, and we find out rather quickly that Sparrow has had their mind taken over, which led to Sparrow losing hours with no memory of what happened. I’ll admit that Sparrow was my favorite character in the book: they’re smart, resourceful, brave, have issues with commitment and friendship that I related to immensely, and possess a great sense of humor. Bull also crafts other great characters: Sherrea, Frances Redding, Mick Skinner, China Black, and Theo. This book also serves as proof that writing a novel from a first-person perspective of someone who’s not female doesn’t keep/excuse you from passing the Bechdel test. (It also passes Kelly Sue DeConnick’s “Sexy Lamp Test,” so it’s a pretty feminist book.) While the story belongs to Sparrow, the other characters add their own agendas and backstories to the narrative, making them well-rounded—at least, well-rounded enough

Bull's prose is well-done, over all. There's a good balance in sentence structure and her descriptions are colorful, but she narrowly avoids purple prose. Sometimes, I felt she got a bit over descriptive, but these times were minor. 

There are problems—the pacing can be off; some of the swearing got excessive; Sparrow’s narration reaks of white privilege with the description of characters assumed white until they specify; Sparrow being the only non-binary character in the story, plus it being down to a speculative element; the black characters felt kind of Magical Negro; the implied rape vibes I got in one of the chapters made me extremely uncomfortable, and I don’t think it was handled adequately.

All things said, Bone Dance is a solid work. It’s not without its flaws, but it still works as entertainment due to its action, world-building, characters, and mystery. Even more importantly, it holds fairly relevant themes for a modern speculative reader: the right to choose your own identity rather than the one that was forced on you and not conform to what is seen as the default (in this case, cis male and heterosexual). I’d recommend it with some reservations.

Score: 3.5/5

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