Justice Playthrough #150: Books & Bone

“Oooh, it’s a NOVEL novel. Not an interactive novel or anything, just a plain ol’ long book.”

“Fuck.”

Page 30, Game 24: Books & Bone by Victoria Corva

Not gonna lie, once I realized what this was, I was more apprehensive about it than any other entry I’ve explored in this bundle. Once upon a time, I aspired to be a fiction writer. To improve my own work, I involved myself in critique groups with other unpublished authors, and….

Look, writing a novel is actually pretty easy. To write a novel, all you have to do is keep spraying words out of your fingertips until you have 100,000 of them or so, then slap on a title and some cover art, and boom! Done! On to the NEXT installment of your fantasy epic!

But writing a GOOD novel is very, very hard. It’s an unbelievably tricky balancing act of giving your reader enough information to entice without overloading them. It’s keeping the story moving swiftly while still giving everything enough room to breathe. It’s defining your characters enough to make them interesting without getting heavy-handed and attempting to dictate what your reader MUST think of them. It’s providing enough plot to give it structure without so much that it becomes a straitjacket. It’s spotting opportunities to add genuine depth and consistent details without getting lost up your own asshole.

This is why Brandon Sanderson is a legit amazing author. Anybody can write multiple novels per year. But none of Brandon’s ever outright suck.

And just because you wrote ONE decent novel doesn’t mean the next one’s going to be worth a shit. Sometimes, when you’re reading an unpublished work, you have to look a friend in the eye — a friend you regard as talented, a friend whose work you’re generally excited to read — and find a polite way to tell them that their pacing is a shitshow. Or that their worldbuilding is a nonsensical clusterfuck of random tropes. Or that their protagonist is a bowl of room-temperature oatmeal that, by some tedious miracle, has gained the ability to speak.

Editors are important. Editors are all that prevent the entire culture from deciding that novels are an inherently worthless artform and nobody should read them ever. Some gates just need keepers, god dammit.

So, no, I was NOT filled with joy when I learned the random number generator had landed me on an unpublished novel.

Well, self-published. Same thing but with a bit more ambition. Only thing that self-publishing tells you about a novel’s quality is that the author is confident in their ability. This has no relationship whatsoever to their actual skill.

I’m saying all this to provide context so that, when I say that I was actually pleasantly surprised by this novel, you know where the bar is actually set.

This novel is not horrendous, and is easily in the upper quartile of all un/self-published novels I’ve ever read.

Does that make it, you know, “good?”

Let’s not lose our minds here.

Books & Bone (oh, yeah, I’m actually supposed to be talking about a specific novel here, not wallowing in an extended artistic PTSD flashback) is a young adult fantasy novel following Ree, a young woman living in Tombtown, a secret city of necromancers. It’s high fantasy, of course — the D&D roots come shining through in a number of places, most notably in the tension between necromantic practitioners of The Craft and the divine spellcasters who can FUCK up the undead more or less at will.

Ree is one of the few people — the only person? — who has lived her entire life in Tombtown, and who wasn’t driven there seeking refuge from the prejudices of the Upworlders.

Anyway, one day Ree was just gothing around the upper tombs when she met something she was truly unprepared for — a BOY! It’s infatuation at first sight, because apparently “Hasn’t spent his entire life marinating in ambient necromancy” makes this dude fuckin’ HAWT. Also, unlike pretty much everyone else in Ree’s peer group, this boy doesn’t treat her with a never-ending stream of contempt and assholery, so I can see the appeal.

The boy, one Chandrian (hey, a reference!) Smythe, follows her deeper into the tombs than he should, where he … saves her life. But then she saves HIS life. And then needs to save it some more, some more, and some more.

I’m about a third of the way through the novel. If there’s a plot here other than “Ree keeps the boy she’s crushing on from yet another horrible death,” I have yet to find it.

Nevertheless. I am a third of the way through the novel. That says something about its not-awfulness.

There are problems here. There are a lot of problems. The worldbuilding and the narrative keep picking fights with each other, and the reader loses. Despite the fact that this is the only world she’s ever known, Ree seems remarkably ill-equipped to handle it; she finds herself in mortal peril TWICE in the first four chapters alone, and both times has to be bailed out by someone else.

If anything, Ree feels like more of an outsider than Smythe. It’s YA, so the whole nobody-gets-me vibe is just part of the package, but the story does a poor job of establishing WHY she feels perpetually on the outside looking in. WHY is she so resistant to learning The Craft? It would clearly make things easier for her, both socially and for navigating the many, many hazards of her world. Yeah, there’s some Old Magic she’s interested in digging up, but why can’t she learn The Craft AND the shit she actually cares about? Expertise in diverse disciplines is a GOOD thing, yo.

The only thing I can figure is that it’s pure game logic. Choosing your first player-character level is honestly a pretty big deal, and I get the impression that she’s holding out for the splatbook (it’s here SOMEWHERE, gods dammit) that will let her put hers in something other than “Necromancer.”

I’m entirely too unclear on which branch of magic actually interests Ree. The author is playing that card WAAAAAAAY to close to the chest, and is withholding information to try and artificially create mystery. Boo. If you’re gonna put me in Ree’s head, I kinda need to know what’s important to her, author. I assume it will be part of a Big Reveal later.

The prose is serviceable. Fun and playful in places, but repetitive in others. The novel would hugely benefit from an editor, or at the very least more thorough beta readers. (Not it.) Ree isn’t the most compelling protagonist I’ve ever read, but she isn’t insufferable, and if you think that’s damning with faint praise you have no idea what true suffering is. The supporting cast has a tendency to be too one-note to be interesting, unfortunately. Her infatuation with Smythe rings true when you see how uniformly shitty people are to her otherwise, but I’d still like the guy to have traits beyond “clueless posh blabbermouth.”

The plot and pacing are not great. There’s no top-level conflict to provide any narrative momentum, beyond Ree having a crush (though, hey, YA, so maybe that’s enough). Maybe that changes, but I’m a third of the way in; I want something more than hopping from one related side-quest to another. (Get to the healer! No, wait, the healer needs a woozle! No, wait, the woozle isn’t HERE, it’s waydafuck over THERE!)

There are a lot of fun little details, though, like Larry the Zombie, who’s the Tombtown version of a harmless and vaguely friendly stray dog. Tombtown in general has a certain Halloween Town vibe that I found fun and appealing; Jack Skellington would totally vacation here.

This is not a good novel. But when I squint, I can absolutely see the better novel trying to claw its way out. It’s not a tedious exercise in transparent wish fulfillment. (Again, if you think that’s damning with faint praise, I envy you oh you dear sweet summer child.) It’s not consistently compelling, but it’s interesting, playful, and heartfelt in enough stretches that it kept me interested much, much longer than I expected.

Honestly? I might just keep reading it. It’s decidedly not awful.

Some novels need to be shared with the world, and any gatekeepers standing in their way do the the world a disservice. They are rare, and Books & Bone isn’t one of them. Most novels are wretched wastes of precious time, and the gatekeepers preventing them from being unleashed upon an unsuspecting world are heroes who shall never be adequately thanked — but Books & Bone isn’t one of them, either.

The word I’m looking for is “promising.”

With a good editor or someone else willing to nurture her talent, Victoria Corva could become a legitimately good fantasy author. Maybe she’ll find that kind of mentor someday. Maybe she’ll figure it out on her own.

Regardless. I hope she keeps writing. I hope she does become the most skilled version of herself. I hope I someday get to read the best version of Books & Bone. I’m confident it’s a really good book.

Right. Is this next game going to trigger less of me wallowing in my own past?

Page 21, Game 28: Toto Temple Deluxe by Juicy Beast

“A frenzied multiplayer party game about colorful characters battling for an egg-laying goat!”

O_o

Right. No egg-laying goats in my pasts. So that’s a “Yes.”