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- Published on Amazon.com
I am a longtime fantasy reader, though I tend to stick to "epic" or "traditional" fantasy and thus have not read a lot of sword and sorcery. My sole experiences with sword and sorcery to date, other than the first volume in this series (The Desert of Souls), have basically been a handful of Elric stories by Michael Moorcock. I am not particularly familiar with many of the writers who influenced Howard Andrew Jones (e.g. Harold Lamb, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, etc.). So the first thing I will say is that, if you happen to find yourself in the same situation as I was, don't let that stop you from picking up this book. It is definitely possible to enjoy The Bones of the Old Ones, even without that background. Actually, having read Mr. Jones's books, I am now motivated to go seek out some of the work of the authors who influenced him.
While you don't need to be immersed in the world of sword and sorcery to enjoy The Bones of the Old Ones, I would strongly suggest reading The Desert of Souls first. Although Bones IS a self-contained adventure, a few characters from the previous book make appearances (not necessarily as characters in this book, but as names dropped here and there, for example). Plus, the relationship between the two protagonists, Asim and Dabir, was developed primarily in the first novel. Asim, I thought, underwent a rather nice transformation in Desert from being a little bit of a stick in the mud to being someone who would actually be willing to break the rules to save a friend. (In Bones, as in Desert, events are related from Asim's point of view -- basically as an account he is writing years later -- so you get much more inside Asim's head than Dabir's.)
At any rate, I don't want to spend too long talking about the previous book. I just thought the characterization needed a little context. I, personally, am glad that the author didn't re-hash in great detail a bunch of the plot and/or character development from the previous book. At the same time, reading the previous book helps one to understand Asim and Dabir more fully.
Bones is not as heavy on the characterization as Desert was, but Dabir and Asim generally behave as we expect them to, based on what we know from the previous book. Asim seemed slightly less rigid with respect to remembering to pray five times a day. Sometimes he missed prayers; sometimes he remarked on that fact and sometimes he didn't. However, the action was pretty fast and furious (sorry for the cliche) for a lot of the book, which leads me to believe that not a lot of time passed in the world of the story, or that if time did pass, Asim was too busy fighting his way out of trouble to stop and pray. That might be a little of Dabir's more permissive attitude influencing the normally stolid Asim, as well. I also rather liked that Asim was again not just a bodyguard type, but actually figured out, on his own, some key information about the bone artifacts that gave the book its name.
One thing I really like about both books in the series is the setting. Bones is set primarily in Mosul (Iraq) and environs, shortly (a century or two) after the rise of Islam. This is a far cry from the pseudo-medieval-European world seen throughout much of the fantasy genre, and I appreciate that a great deal. I get rather tired of the standard tropes (e.g. farmboys with swords, tavern scenes, etc.) and so I enjoyed the Middle Eastern setting quite a bit. I am not a historian; however, the Afterword discusses sources (a list can be found in Desert) as well as certain liberties that were taken with historical facts. To me, at least, the day-to-day world felt realistic and well-researched, but the details were integrated in such a way as to add to the story without infodumping. I also like that Mr. Jones stayed true to the actual historical setting he chose. While there were female characters in this book, including some with a great deal of influence, they were well-integrated into the story. The book would've lacked authenticity if Jones had included female characters acting outside the typical roles expected of them at the time. Thus, one of the more powerful (human) women in the story, Lydia, is "Greek" rather than a Muslim woman.
Another thing I think is done well is the action. In the Afterword, Mr. Jones discusses how he studied Zelazny's fight scenes from the Amber books. I have to admit, I found the fight scenes in the Amber books to be somewhat tedious. I often skimmed them until I found out who won, then moved on. But there was no need to skim the fight scenes in The Bones of the Old Ones -- I read them straight through. I got a sense of what was going on -- could even picture it in my head, most of the time -- and sometimes wondered about the outcome. While I didn't expect either of Asim and Dabir to die (as I believe Mr. Jones has more adventures planned for the pair of them), I really didn't know how they were going to get out of certain situations. That made me want to continue reading!
Pacing was appropriate. While it took me a couple of weeks to read this book (I've had a lot of demands in my life lately that haven't left much time for reading), I don't remember any parts that dragged. Things were always moving, always advancing the story. There weren't a lot of unnecessary diversions.
The villains were a group of ancient sorcerers known as the Sebitti. Some of their names, you may recognize from history or literature (Enkidu, for example), but those were really just names and nothing more. I particularly liked that the Sebitti changed alliances from time to time, that even though their longevity somewhat removed them from having human concerns, that they still had humanlike motivations. They weren't totally alien and they weren't totally evil.
Another villain was a little more alien -- a frost demon who inhabited the body of Najya, a Persian woman who made the acquaintance of Asim and Dabir fairly early on in the book. As in other cases of demon possession in fantasy fiction, Najya's own soul retreats further and further back as the demon gains strength, but shines through every once in awhile. This aspect of the story was a little predictable, I'll admit. What made it work, I thought, were all the competing factions -- some Sebitti supported Najya's demon, some opposed the demon, some seemed to switch alliances, Lydia the Greek (you may remember her from Desert) was involved, etc. A demon possession on its own wouldn't have been very compelling, but mixed in with everything else, it was all right.
The magic system was standard fantasy fare. Incantations, power from blood, demon possession, carved symbols, magic circles for containment and/or protection, etc. Some of the effects were new and different -- for example, wooden figurines grown to large size and come to life -- and that kept my interest. I felt nearly as frustrated as Asim when he'd fight and fight against a giant wooden man and not get anywhere for a long while. I do wish there'd been a little deeper look at the issue of Islam versus magic, i.e., what was permitted or not, characters' internal conflicts, etc. (But then again, maybe that would've been out of place in an adventure story.) Asim protested a little in this regard -- and Dabir too, at one point -- but sometimes religion took a backseat to other elements needed to advance the story.
I will agree with some of the other reviewers that the ending was a little too "Hollywood-ish." However, considering the outcome for Dabir's love life in The Desert of Souls, I wasn't sure until very late in the book whether or not Asim would get his wish with respect to Najya. Jones easily could've made the two friends' fates in this area mirror each other.
And finally, putting on my editorial hat for just a moment: I found that there was a fair amount of "telling" instead of "showing." For example, Asim would say that Dabir told him something instead of having the conversation play out in a scene. To some extent, this can be explained away by the fact that Asim is supposedly writing down the story years later. Perhaps he doesn't remember their exact words, perhaps the entirety of the conversation would've been boring to reproduce -- we don't know. In some sense, this may be a stylistic choice. The prose was otherwise quite good -- much better writing than in the small amount of other sword and sorcery I've read. And other than this one issue, I thought the book was very well edited, both on a substantive level and on a proofreading/copy editing level.
Oh yes, and I loved the little teaser Asim dropped just at the end with respect to the next book in the series.
At any rate, I'd recommend The Bones of the Old Ones to anyone with an interest in fantasy who either already reads sword and sorcery or who is thinking about getting into some more sword and sorcery. I'd also recommend it to anyone who is getting tired of the trope-laden pseudo-medieval-European fantasy setting (not that there aren't tropes in Bones, mind you, but the alternative setting makes a difference).
Full disclosure: I received a free e-loan of this title from the publisher after a brief online discussion with Howard Andrew Jones. I do not know Mr. Jones and was not asked to write a review. I merely said some nice things about the previous book in the series on my blog, and Mr. Jones asked if I would like to read the sequel.