California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout
I’ve lived in California for almost 18 years now, but last year was my first visit to the La Brea Tar Pits. The pits themselves are bubbly, smelly, and a little anticlimactic. The life-sized models are 70s-esque and cartoonish. Watching paleontologists work on giant crated hunks of tar extracted from LACMA’s new garage is surreal and wonderful, but it’s a little hard to see what they’re doing. The museum is fantastic, though. Skeletons of giant sloths, mastodons, saber-tooth cats (“Not tigers,” I’m corrected by my daughter). It’s a small museum but well done and the view into the fossil lab gives an impressively clear view of what paleontologists actually do.
But my favorite exhibits was the backlit gallery of dire wolf skulls, on the grounds that it looked totally cool.
See? Totally cool. I don’t actually know this for sure — I haven’t read any interviews by him— but I have a hunch that was why Greg Van Eekhout write California Bones. Because the idea of an alternate dystopian LA run by terrifying ageless magicians powered by magic extracted from prehistoric bones is also totally cool. (This advanced literary concept is based largely onSteven Brust’s Cool Stuff Theory of Literature.) And it is! There’s even a scene (which I won’t give away) with the dire wolf skulls, promise.
The peril of a book based on a premise that cool is, frankly, that it won’t quite live up to it. California Bones is a lot of fun, and manages the dual trick of taking the premise seriously (meaning it scrupulously abides by the rules of the world it has set up) while not taking itself too seriously (it’s funny even while being all dark and serious in parts). It does not quite live up to the coolness of the premise, but I’m happy to forgive that, if only for the but with the dire wolf skulls.