Sunday, May 8, 2011
By These Ten Bones
Author: Clare B. Dunkle
Publisher: Square Fish
(Review copy courtesy of Blue Slip Media)
By These Ten Bones is one of those most annoying of books: the kind that can't live up to it's ideas. It's a decent plot, but there's a difference between a good plot and a good story. Turning the former into the latter requires skill, time, and effort. In the case of By These Ten Bones, one or more of the three was sorely lacking. The result is a book that left me completely and totally cold.
Our heroine Madeline, called 'Maddie' most of the time, is the daughter of a tradesman in a small hamlet in medieval Ireland. Her love interest is an apparently mute young man who stops by one day with a group of traders. Having no other name for him, Maddie nicknames him Carver, after the beautiful decorative woodcarvings he makes. Carver and his caretaker Ned plan to just do some trading and then move on to the next town. Unfortunately Black Ewan, the local strongman, has an attack of jackassery and takes Ned more or less as a slave, forcing Carver to stick around. Maddie's family takes him in, and sparks start to fly between the two. But when a mysterious, unholy beast starts terrorizing the villagers at night -- well, you can see where this is going.
My first impression of By These Ten Bones was that it was trying to do what Wolfbreed did, but doing it less successfully. By the end, however, I realized that I had mis-assessed the book, in that it's actually going for a kind of folktale vibe. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work.
Ten Bones does get some things right. The author seems to have done the research on the middle ages period, and so we have an authentic (or authentic-seeming, which is more important) portrait of daily life. Christianization is slowly but surely eclipsing old traditions and superstitions, but the old ways remain firmly entrenched with the populace. Father Mac, the local clergyman of this unnamed village, does his best in combating the ignorance of the villagers. Which is a tough row for him to hoe sometimes. One character is educated and thus knows the sayings of Ancient Greek philosophers. This is taken as a sign of witchcraft by the illiterate townspeople, since how could one speak to an ancient greek except through necromancy? Social injustice is another issue lurking in the background. Black Ewan's extracting forced labor from Ned with no legal repercussions is a stark manifestation of the gap between rich and poor. A more minor, but more telling incident, is when a local woman gives birth to a baby that dies the day of it's birth. That same day, the local lord's wife dies. The text notes: "The woman didn't go to funerals, not even for one of their own, but if the men weren't there to help bear the new lady's body, they would earn the new lord's lasting fury."
The supernatural elements are also played well. They're on the edge of the characters' consciousness. Everyone knows they exist but noone is quite sure what to make of it. Is a mysterious happenstance late in the book a demon playing tricks, the product of a troubled imagination, or a message from a ghost? Theories are mentioned, but noone knows. It has a very mysterious, gothic air to it.
But though Ten Bones gets points for setting, try as I might I just couldn't get into the story. The issue, I think, is that the attempts at folktale atmosphere bite the book in the rear. Folktales tend to be short and relatively direct, designed to be read to a child before bedtime, or told around the fire after dinner. And they commonly feature very cursory character development -- this character is a boy, or a girl, or a man, or a woman, or an old hag or a scary monster, whatever. That's all you get. Around a campfire, it works. The storyteller may wish tailor his telling to a specific audience, or get his listeners to fills in the blanks from their life experience, so the broad strokes approach gives him versatility.
Novels, however, are static. What's on the page is all you get. So the story requires a lot more development. What works around the fire feels thin and insubstantial when stretched out to 230 pages. So By These Ten Bones winds up as a really dry read. We learn little about Maddie, less about Carver, and almost nothing about the supporting cast. The reader has no real reason to care about what happens to these people, as they feel more like sock puppets then living, breathing human beings. As a result, the book becomes tedious and dull. So much so, in fact, that I've been working on this review for the better part of the week and I can't come up with anything interesting to say. I got nothing. Complete blank. It's that dull.
So, hey, I guess I'm done.
The verdict: don't read By These Ten Bones. I hate to say it, but that's how it is. The story is so thin, and the characters so indistinct, that it a chore for me to get through. It's not offensively bad, it's just dull, dull, dull.