Books and Bone by Victoria Corva

(8.0/10) An imaginative and funny novel that’s well worth a go, especially if you’re looking for something that’s kinda gross but heart warming too

Ree is not like other girls. Or like anyone in the city of the dead actually. Because even though necromancy is Tombtown’s thing, she knows in her heart that it’s just not for her. Instead, she dreams of something lost, a form of shapeshifting magic called therianthropy. Forgotten by everyone living, and most of the dead too, Ree must turn to books for her answers. But the path to knowledge never did run smooth, especially after she trips over a young historian on his own journey. Finding an upworlder gone astray in the crypts is one thing but then he has the audacity to take a curse meant for her and nearly die in the process. She owes him big, but keeping him safe will put everyone in danger. Still, if he can help her find what she’s looking for, it might just be worth the risk…

This was the hook that caught me, an idea that sounded fresh and fun. I came across it in the SPFBO sampler which, despite my already ridiculous TBR, I had decided to flick though just in case I might have missed something. Some of the books I’d already read during the year I was judging, and there were SO MANY MORE that caught my eye, but there was something about Victoria Corva’s Books and Bone that had me thinking about it weeks later. Clearly, I had to read it. [For those wanting to take a look at the sampler, check it out here: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/ett75g3wn3.

Probably the most appealing, and effective, aspect of the book is the deliberate contrast between the author's humorous and rather wholesome approach to the story and the expectations a reader might have due to the setting— an underground crypt in which necromancy is the only game in town. That, of course, is a huge part of the fun. Victoria Corva tends to come at her creation sideways and it's clear that not only has she taken the time to really think about how this society would work, but also about how she wants to bring that knowledge to the reader. The worldbuilding is detailed and wide-ranging, giving the place an unquestionable veracity, but never overwhelming. Chapter openers (like the one below) are utilised as 'sources' and offer the opportunity for amusing and artful description. Not only do they provide the reader with important info about the place and its inhabitants in a way that avoids info dumping within the actual story, they’re also a means of saying something about the way the tale is going to be told. Snarky commentary, a sense of playfulness, the inventive use of narrative structure, an authorial impulse to work against expectations- all these factors both build and reflect the conflict between the story's style and its setting. It's also one of the reasons that, for me, the book walked the line between YA and adult, with the author's commitment to humour, the young cast, and the youthful moral outlook lightening what could have been a much darker read. The comedy is layered though the narrative in varied and surprising ways, hitting different notes as required, and is especially rewarding when undermining the seriousness with which some of the characters take themselves. Unsurprisingly, necromancers tend to be a haughty, self-important bunch.

The seven founding necromancers set themselves up as a town council to settle disputes among the denizens and intimidate unruly necromancers into obedience. As necromancers naturally form into cabals under more powerful practitioners, this shape of governance worked with little rebellion. As of the time of writing, only three of the seven founding council members have been executed for treason and mutiny. This success is much celebrated and at solstices the tortured souls of the offending council members are summoned to warn young denizens of the dangers of trying to grab too much power. It is a delightful tradition and a favourite of children.

The people rightly remain the heart of the novel and provide the necessary grounding to give the setting an everyday feeling even when things get decidedly weird. In a similar way to the tone, the limited depth lends itself more towards the lighter end of the age spectrum. The critical question of Ree’s life is how to be herself in a world that wants her to be someone else. Yet the framing of that conflict first through parental expectations makes this the quintessential teen dilemma. Even so, Ree is the kind of likeable person who you want to succeed. Her intelligence and initiative are what propels the plot forwards, she makes things happen. She’s a girl full of potential and it is only partly realised here. There’s room for so much more in the future and I really hope we get to see it. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the bumbling Smythe, who was an instant and everlasting irritant to me. As much as I could appreciate his role as a foil for Ree, and understood that the author meant him to be annoying, I disliked him from the first page to the last. His very small amount of growth as a person did little to change my initial impression and his actions only compounded my decision. Instead, I wanted more of the brilliant friend/enemy Usther. The depiction of this complex and compelling female friendship was a highlight, with moments of sheer perfection. The to and fro of their relationship reminded me so much of me and my sister, with all the shades of love and competition and petty disagreements that go with such bonds.

Books and Bone is an imaginative and funny novel that’s well worth a go, especially if you’re looking for something that’s kinda gross but heart warming too. Most of all, it’ll make you smile. It might even make you desperate to have your own bitey dead/undead friend called Larry one day and that kind of positive outcome is really all you can ask for from a book.

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