This is the fifty-third entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
A Librarians-and-Necromancy Fantasy Novel
That’s right, readers. This one is not a game, but a full length novel, in e-reader format (.epub and .mobi). I actually didn’t have any e-reader software, but I was able to use the free Google Play Books app on my phone to read it, after a little fiddling to get it to find the file. I think I’ll forgo the screenshots this time.
I used to read a lot of fantasy and science fiction novels when I was younger. I still do, with more of a science fiction focus these days, but I now consider much of what I read back then to be crap. The fantasy novels especially were full of cliched plots, paper-thin characterization, and unapologetic and often problematic tropes. I was reminded of this when, before playing Betrayal at Krondor, I decided to read the novels that inspired it and found them lacking. My tastes have matured, is what I am saying.
But the fantasy genre has matured too. While I haven’t read too many recent examples, there seems to be a trend towards subverting the old expectations of fantasy fiction, highlighting underrepresented perspectives and exploring social structures, and emphasizing better characterization instead of relying on pure worldbuilding (a perennial issue with fantasy and science fiction literature alike). I’m happy to report that Books & Bone aligns with this newer style. But it does seem aimed at a younger audience than myself. Protagonist Ree (short for Reanima) is seventeen, and she’s dealing with recognizable teenage problems: parental disapproval, strained relations with her peers, and a conflict between her own dreams and the expectations of her community. That community just happens to be a town of necromancers, living in a massive and ancient subterranean burial complex where they can live (mostly) free of the persecution of upworlders. One of the best things about Books & Bone is how it takes necromancers, so often the villains in traditional fantasy, and paints them as a marginalized group who are just trying to practice their Craft without being killed for it. Sure, most of them are power-hungry and distrustful, and they do work with corpses and viscera all day, and many of them are nearly undead themselves, but they’re still just regular people. Mostly.
The tale begins when Ree spies one of those upworlders wandering through the crypt. Chandrian Smythe, the ever enthusiastic historian and scholar, is nearly as young as Ree and is the novel’s other major character. (An aside: this opening scene brought back vague memories of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan, a rare example of fantasy that transcended the cliches of its time, making me wonder if it’s an intentional homage. But it’s been so long since I’ve read it that I do not trust the accuracy of my memory. I really should read the Earthsea books again.) Upworlders are usually either adventurers looking to plunder the tombs, or priests bent on killing the necromancers, so any caught wandering the tunnels are traditionally killed. Or, better, sacrificed. But Ree is taken aback by the completely unthreatening Smythe, and sees some kinship with him due to their mutual love of books. Most necromancers have a casual disdain for books, but Ree is the town’s apprentice archivist, and has in fact declined to learn necromancy because she is secretly researching a different type of magic entirely.
Most of that context came later, though. Books & Bone maintains a blisteringly fast pace, to its detriment in the opening sections. There’s a tendency to intersperse succinct descriptions of what Ree is thinking and feeling, with a few scraps of her history as justification, before impatiently returning to the action at hand. But this robs that action of much of its consequence. The start of the story feels contrived, setting up an excuse to get Ree and Smythe’s story going but not making too much sense. Having just been told that Ree has mapped the tunnels of the crypt complex and knows her way around better than anyone, I watched as she immediately made an epic and nearly fatal blunder. Sure, it motivates what comes after — and later I learned more about what was actually going on — but it’s an awkward way to begin.
From these humble beginnings, however, Books & Bone really grew on me. A cast of interesting secondary characters are gradually introduced, and are soon embroiled in a cascade of events that justify the brisk pace and kept me reading chapter after chapter. But there’s slower character development layered on top of it all, handled well enough that I didn’t particularly mind that it wasn’t that original. Half expecting things to be played straight and half expecting a subversion that tried too hard to be clever, I found neither. In their place are some genuinely surprising twists, each of which raised my estimation of the book in turn (although one twist did leave me pondering some things that didn’t quite make sense). These don’t so much subvert tropes as turn them into something else entirely. If you’d asked my opinion when I was still in the first third of the book, you’d get a different answer than the one you’re getting now.
Books & Bone still relies on its snippets of exposition throughout, and this can lessen the impact of some scenes. During pivotal conversations, Ree’s internal monologue detailing her thoughts and emotions in response to other characters is a little on the nose. They’re familiar thoughts and feelings, but the writing isn’t quite confident enough to let the reader figure out the subtext on their own, instead stating it outright. This bothered me less than I expected, because by this point I’d grown attached to the characters and their weird underground town, and I was enjoying the larger ideas at play. Books & Bone does enough right that these smaller issues are quickly forgotten.
In fact, by the end, the only gripe I still held was how books are handled. On several occasions, Ree and Smythe must find solutions to their problems through some old fashioned research, digging through libraries for tomes of knowledge that might help them. But this tends to occur under extreme time pressure, with breakthroughs found after a single overnight marathon session, or, in one case, just a few hours of cramming. Which isn’t necessarily a problem, but I felt that Books & Bone is missing a passion for long and arduous study. It’s easy to believe that Smythe, who chatters incessantly about each little historical detail he notices in the tombs, truly loves scholarship and would happily spend months burying his nose in books, but for all of Ree’s aspirations towards lost magics and protectiveness over her precious research notes, I never got the same feeling from her. I believed in her desire to uncover these ancient secrets, and in her frustration when her research hit an impasse, but I never sensed her excitement for the research itself. I expected her to tell the story of her discoveries, those specific books she finally found after exhaustive searching that led to breakthroughs. I wanted to hear of the strange ideas of particular authors, at odds with each other, until a key find proved both of them wrong. I wanted Ree’s years of work to be more than vague toil in the background. In short, I wanted more specific books in the book. Even the excerpts that precede each chapter are too often from Emberlon the Disloyal’s “A History of Tombtown”, when they could have come from all sorts of books that demonstrate the rich literary bounty contained within the crypt’s many libraries.
But I worry that I’ve spent too much time being critical, when I actually really liked Books & Bone. I’m not sure I could pinpoint exactly when I’d become fully invested in the story, I just found myself worrying about Ree and her friends when I wasn’t reading, and increasingly anxious to get to the next chapter the farther I got. Characters grew on me almost without me noticing, and I was particularly impressed when I realized I was starting to like some people who were initially very unlikeable. The best parts come towards the end, which means I can’t go into details without spoiling things, but suffice it to say that a few late reveals brilliantly recontextualize everything that came before, in wonderful “aha” moments. The story is then capped by an uncommonly satisfying ending that left me pondering it long after I’d put the book away.
Books & Bone is Victoria Corva’s first published novel, but they’ve since written several short stories set in Tombtown, and a Kickstarter campaign to fund a sequel is planned for sometime this year (the publication of Books & Bone was also funded via Kickstarter). I enjoyed Books & Bone enough that I plan to check out these stories, and I’ve signed up to the mailing list to be notified about the sequel. If you’re intrigued by what I’ve written here, consider checking out Books & Bone yourself. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $4.85, with both .epub and .mobi formats offered.
That’s 53 down and only 1688 to go, which means we’ve made it through 3% of the bundle! So how are we doing on the issues of systemic racism and racial justice? Just days ago, the city of Minneapolis agreed to a $27 million settlement payment to the estate of George Floyd. Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin (who is no longer on the police force) on May 25, 2020 sparked widespread protests and discussions of systemic racism in the United States and around the world, to which this bundle is but one response. The settlement is for a civil case between Floyd’s estate and the city of Minneapolis, not the criminal trial of Derek Chauvin, which is proceeding with jury selection at the time of writing. In addition to the record-setting payment, the city of Minneapolis is redirecting $7.77 million in funding from the police towards new programs, and instituting policy reforms aimed at eliminating police brutality and changing attitudes of police officers towards civilians.
I hope that other cities will follow this example and defund their police forces, especially where high budgets and militarization have become commonplace. As always, there is a lot of work left to do, but I’m cautiously optimistic that the first steps are being taken. But I am not so naive as to believe change will come without resistance. There will be more violence to come. In the UK, headlines are filled with the news that a police officer has been charged with the murder of Sarah Everard, who went missing on March 3. The case has sparked renewed anger and protests over the ineffective police response to violent crimes against women, which shifts blame onto the victims for daring to walk alone at night instead of blaming the men who commit these crimes. And now a police officer is the suspected murderer, and photos of police arresting women at the protests, face down on the pavement, are all over the internet. It’s a grim reminder that problems with policing run deep, and that systemic sexism is just as real as systemic racism.
We must not relent in our push for change. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, but these issues are in the spotlight and we must keep them there, without getting distracted by the next crisis. With enough collective will and action, we can make meaningful change together.