Author: Chris Evans
Information on series: Not part of a series
Rating (scale of 1-10): 9
TL;DR: An excellent rendition of a soldier’s eye view of war, Of Bone and Thunder places fantasy features like dragons and wizards into a setting reminiscent of the Vietnam War.
Longer review: The Kingdom is the world’s preeminent power, but its powerful military confronts a serious challenge when they begin an occupation of Luitox. Their enemy, the Forest Collective, is almost indistinguishable from friendly Luitoxians, and expertly melt into the jungle which blankets Luitox’s high peaks and wide, swampy river valleys.
The action follows several narrators, from ground-pounding crossbowmen Carny and Listowk, to rag (dragon) pilot Vorly, and inexperienced thaum (wizard) Jawn. The novel jumps between narrators, and sometimes significantly forward in time. Through a series of interconnected episodes, the soldiers recount their experiences while trying to make sense of their part in a conflict that is too large and complicated for them to understand. Some seek solace in thoughts of home, or by embracing religion or the patriotic rhetoric of their leaders – others turn to apathy, or to drug abuse, or begin to embrace the violent work they have been conscripted to do.
The world of Luitox feels fascinating and deep, in part because of the obvious, and very well-executed, extended metaphor with American involvement in Vietnam. It is rewarding to come across historical similarities that the author has taken pains to incorporate, like the racial tension amongst the Kingdom’s soldiers - here between human and dwarf rather than between white and black. Even the fantasy elements have historical parallels, right down to the whup whup whup sound of dragon wings echoing the rotor blades of Vietnam’s helicopters.
While there is character development, this isn’t a bildungsroman; no one grows from boyhood to manhood, or rises from humble farmer to world savior. Further, while the book ends with some resolution for the characters, it contains neither the beginning nor the end of the conflict in Luitox as a whole. The reader’s view of the big picture is restricted to the knowledge that the characters themselves possess. This will make Of Bone and Thunder completely unsatisfying to people looking for high fantasy, but the book is no less great for that. Author Chris Evans has created a really intimate and harrowing look at war as seen through the eyes of a common soldier, a perspective that is almost unique in the fantasy genre, and is well worth the read.
Read alikes: The novel’s point of view meant that the first read alikes that sprang to my mind were outside of fantasy. Here are three books with similar perspectives – the points of view of regular soldiers during war.
Seven Men of Gascony, by R. F. Delderfield: This is a classic work of military, historical fiction, which follows seven young Frenchmen conscripted into Napoleon’s army. Through the victories, the horror of the retreat from Russia, and the reckoning of Waterloo, the friends fight to keep each other alive. A bit older now, the novel shows some age in the more formal-sounding language, but does a far better job than more modern authors like Bernard Cornwell in illustrating the effects of war on ordinary soldiers.
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi: Great military sci-fi in which a squad of geriatrics is enlisted to fight humanity’s wars amongst the stars. Though some characters go on to do big things later in the series, in this first volume they fight for survival and their squadmates as humans try to win colonies from a myriad of strange and sometimes violent inter-stellar races.
The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien: Perhaps the preeminent novel of the American soldier’s experience in Vietnam. Of Bone and Thunder doesn’t include anything similar to O'Brien's interesting musings on the role of story in life, and probably isn’t destined to be a classic, but both books see the war intimately through the eyes of soldiers on the ground, and both have an episodic feel.
If you need a read alike from within fantasy, here are some books with action that falls outside the sword and sorcery fantasy tradition even if they don’t feel quite the same.
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik: Very much a military fantasy, even if it is more character driven, Novik introduces dragons into Napoleonic era warfare. Probably would be really interesting to anyone who enjoyed the dragons and action in Of Bone and Thunder. But it is pretty evident, even in this first of a nine-volume series, that Laurence and Temeraire are destined to great things and a leading role in their world.
Review by: By Seth Warburton Ames Public Library