Bone houses are not, as you might guess, architecture constructed from bone. I would like to see a book written about that, but I’m glad Emily Lloyd-Jones didn’t write it, because she came up with an even more interesting and creepy idea. In her world, bone houses are the living dead, “houses” in which the lights are off…but something might still be home.
Ryn is a gravedigger who is all too familiar with the difference between the dead and the bone houses. She tends to both as she tries to keep her family together and out of debt, but gravedigging doesn’t pay like it used to. Everyone else has forgotten the old ways, and most people don’t even believe her when she comes across–and destroys–the occasional bone house. But Ellis, a mapmaker from the capital, also knows the old stories. And when he gets a glimpse of what Ryn is up against, he knows he must help. But if all the legends are true, they also know how little chance they stand to defeat what springs from the dark heart of the forest.
Anyone familiar with the Prydain Chronicles or the Mabinogion will recognize certain elements of Welsh myth, although the story doesn’t conform to a single myth retelling. Nor does it take the high fantasy tack, which is good, since Lloyd-Jones excels at more intimate moments than big gestures. Ryn and Ellis don’t want to be glorious heroes, they just want to survive.
Weirdly, it feels a lot like The Hunger Games. And not just the setup, although there is an impoverished family with a tough older sister who goes hunting in the forbidden woods, a younger sister who’s naturally sweet and innocent, and a love interest who’s more interested in drawing than fighting. It’s also in the language, which is straightforward and moves along at a steady clip. Here’s the world, here are the characters, let’s not belabor it and definitely let’s not get attached because people are going to die.
Well, in fairness, a lot of people are already dead.
Instead of a murderous dystopian autocracy that involves reality TV, there’s a murderous post-regency curse that involves necromancy. Long ago, the Otherking ruled and magic was plentiful. But the greed and destructiveness of humans caused him to depart for more hospitable shores, leaving behind only small troves of magic. One such trove held a cauldron that could bring anyone back to life–but again, that pesky human greed got in the way, and the cauldron was broken. Its power now only animates the dead, leaving corpses to roam the forests where once the king lived. They have mostly keep away from humans, but one, and then two, and then even more begin venturing toward town. Only Ryn truly grasps the danger, and only Ellis is willing to help her quell the dead.
Ryn and Ellis are a nicely matched team in terms of their abilities and their personalities. Easygoing, self-contained Ellis doesn’t know fighting or survival techniques, but he does have maps and old stories to guide him. His subdued politeness makes it easier for him to get along with Ryn than most, since he can adapt to her prickly moods rather than clash with them. And in the YA field, a break from the witty (or would-be witty) banter and frequent clashes is really a relief. These are two people with heavy hearts who know how not to worsen each other’s wounds, both figurative and literal.
There are some very thoughtful and heartfelt meditations on injury and disability as well as on grief and loss. I appreciated seeing a character who knew how to manage chronic symptoms and speak realistically about dealing with pain, and I equally appreciated the understated examination of the depression and anxiety that comes with mourning. It did feel as though it was coming from someone who has already experienced losses and worked through them rather than from someone who can still access the rawness, though. This makes certain character realizations feel a little too much like they’ve come out of therapy and not out of violent desperation, which the characters face at least once every other chapter by the time things get going.
Then again, a book with a mature and contentious outlook provides a good counterpoint to a lot of the other books coming out this fall (hell, even this September). The gothic romanticism of death, necromancy, and murder is high on everyone’s lists, so it’s nice to have a book that has similar elements, but far less romanticism. Not that I’m knocking my new true love, Gideon the Ninth, or Darkdawn, or any of the others. Rather, I like to see that there’s some contrast with how the topic gets approached, as well as a good spectrum of conclusions to take from what is, ultimately, one of humanity’s most enduring mysteries.
The Bone Houses will be released September 24th.