Not having read Chris Evans before, I picked this up based solely on the cover blurb of "Apocalypse Now meets The Lord of the Rings." It was a bit of a calculated risk, given that I'd exhausted my patience with Vietnam war stories way back in the 80s, when just about every TV action drama had that one big 'event' episode full of jungle flashbacks, but the concept of a gritty, realistic, magical fantasy intrigued me.
I must say, the chapters that open Of Bone and Thunder: A Novel is absolutely remarkable. They offer up a painfully realistic approach to riding dragons into battle, one that completely strips the experience of the magic and the awe that we've come to expect. Evans makes us feel the heat beneath the dragon's scales, the punishing wind that threatens to peel us off its back, the stomach-churning acrobatics of living flight, and the hot, wet vomit splashing across your face from the passenger in front of you. More than that, he forces us to appreciate the logistics of training these magnificent beasts, and the perils of pushing them beyond their limits.
From there, Evans thrusts us deep into the jungle, for what I found the be the weakest part of the tale. We get a lot (and I do mean a lot) of detail regarding jungle warfare tactics, the politics of war, and the challenges of being lost and alone at the front, surrounded on all sides by enemies that you can't see or hear . . . until it's too late. That alone was okay, but the constant reminders of inflexible authority structures, men losing their minds, rampant drug addiction, and quandaries of faith and morality simply got to be too much for me. It got to the point where I dreaded any scene that opened on the mountain.
Fortunately, Carny's jungle scenes are only one-third of the story, and we get two much more interesting story arcs with Jawn and Breeze. Jawn Rathim is an idealistic Thaum (i.e. wizard) who volunteers for one tour of duty out of a sense of . . . well, duty. It's through him and his experiences that we get to know the 'enemy' as just another group of people, little different from the human heroes/oppressors. He gets tangled up with the fantasy equivalent of the CIA, adding another Vietnam parallel to the story. Breeze is another Thaum, working on changing the nature of warfare with her magic. It's through her that we get to understand the challenges of fighting over long distances, in unfamiliar terrain, with equipment that's either broken or tired. She also serves as something of an impartial observer, exposing us to the more personal conflicts of the battlefront, such as with the Dwarven conscripts who never let anybody around them forget their history of racial slavery.
As is often the case with real-world conflicts, it's often hard to tell the heroes from the villains - and just because we call them heroes, it doesn't mean they're all good guys. It's a war that one side thinks it should have won a long time ago, and which the other side sees as a matter of survival. Evans gives us war that is dark, violent, and ugly, a conflict that tears men and women from their natural lives and twists them into something else. Of Bone and Thunder is a hard book to get excited about, in the traditional sense of cheering on heroes and jeering the villains, but it's an interesting read . . . one that makes you rethink the traditional 'glory' of fantasy battles. It does leave a rotten taste in your mouth, but I think that's precisely the point.
Hardcover, 496 pages
Expected publication: October 14th 2014 by Gallery Books