Fridays on Demand: Throne of Bones

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[My apologies that today’s Friday on Demand is coming out Sunday morning.  This intricate work was difficult to critique, and I wanted to give it a fair shake.]

My first foray into Vox Day’s long fiction was his novel Throne of Bones, one of his stories in the fantasy world of Selenoth.  I have already spoken about Vox’s strong amalgamation of Roman and French medieval worlds with standard Western tropes in my review of The Last Witchking.

Throne of Bones itself refers to the seat of the Not-Catholic Church in the heart of Not-Rome, and the novel begins with a strong voice and a fine characteristic introduction.  The humanity of the church’s officers comes through, as does the mystery of potential supernatural goings-on behind the scenes.

Throne of Bones has a strong cast of protagonists, each with unique strengths to their points of view.  Theudric the mage is as close as any character comes to an Everyman.  The Valerian nobles are strong male leads, the elder, Corvus, presents us with a useful embodiment of the classical Roman virtues of piety, family, and patriotism while his younger son Clericus (a joke because of his faith) is a fine officer in the standard fiction role of a freshly-minted officer earning his spurs.  Fjotra, the Norse princess is another strong antagonist, whose own journey highlights the better parts of her culture as well as making an interesting commentary on the roles of women in warrior societies.  His villains, the corrupt politician Patronus and his worldly daughter are living illustration of everything nauseating about Roman history and Byzantine corruption.

Vox’s characterization also harkens back to the great traditions of epic lore.  Every character has at least one major flaw.  Corvus has his unbending legalism, Clericus his matching idealism, and so it goes for every character.  There are no supermen here, only flawed mortals (all things being relative in a story with elves) doing their best according to their nature.  It robs something of the sense of wonder from the story, but makes the more mundane successes of his mortal heroes all the more compelling because they are not inevitable.

Vox’s novel shines in the realm of ideas and formula.  The structure of the church, administration of the republic, and the political maneuvering between nobles are all based on fascinating concepts.  In the critical concept-related portions of his novel Throne of Bones really shines through.  Vox’s critical thinking skills and systematic approach to things supply a rare solidity to his fantasy world.

Vox’s story lines are ambitious.  There are three major stories told within the novel, and any one of them would suffice for a standard mass-market paperback: one tragic story, one political drama, and a military tale as well.

Speaking of military, Vox does an excellent job with two very different styles of combat.  The battle against his demon-werewolf Aalvarg involves Norse shield-wall tactics and free-wheeling medieval cavalry.  The battle scenes are coherent, believable, clear, and engaging.  That’s not an easy thing to pull off and Vox Day does it well.  Even more impressive is his rendering of Roman Legion battles, because they’ve been done to death in fiction.  But Vox uses clear point of view characters, excellent “tight shots” of individual moments of action, and then excellent summaries to breathe life into a fading trope of military fiction.  It’s very, very impressive.

The high-concept work in this novel is brilliant.  Everything that I would give a mixed review seems brighter and better when I try to sum it up.  But if the devil isn’t in the details (both the Divine and the Diabolic are behind the scenes players who never really show up on paper) the application of fantastic concepts is inconsistent.  Other critics have commented that Vox’s novel lacks the sense of wonder that older fantasy authors brought to the page, which is fair.  This tome, which was at least partially conceived as a response to the Song of Ice and Fire, shares Martin’s dirty realism in terms of fantasy.  It often reads more like historical fiction plus magic than true high fantasy, which is a pity because a little bit more light and color would have gone a long way in the grim struggles portrayed.  His characters are human (humanoid?), believable, and praise-worthy, but even if he was not going to use a genuinely wonderful or irredeemably vile character, it would not have gone amiss to have an Elrond or a Sauron lurking on the horizons so that the mundane protagonists had something to aspire to.  I think partially that this may be due to Vox’s inclusion of scripture in Christian fiction.  What a relief!  There is no need for breathing archetypes when the truth of God’s Word is available, even though it, like the God it represents, rarely appears in the story’s events.

Vox is careful to make sure that every event is understandable, which is a fine accomplishment in such an eventful novel.  If anything, though, the reverse is true here.  Approaching the final third of the novel felt like finishing a marathon.  I was exhausted by sheer, endless drama.  Another weakness of the narrative is the choice in point of view character.  The strongest point of view character is the one with the most to lose in any given scene.  Their plight is the more urgent, and their success or failure is the most compelling to the reader.  But Vox’s plot, particularly in what’s referred to as the Big Swampy Middle in some writing circles, frequently demands that the POV character is someone else.  This slows his pacing down because first we have to establish why the second character is present for the other character’s big decision, but then we have to get them there and then reveal the decision.  At least a third of that delivery could vanish with a more immediate viewpoint.  Vox has some legitimate reasons for these choices, and they do not ruin the book, but be prepared to get through the middle in sessions, because the page-turning urgency of the first chapters fades until the final act.

The final problem with the story is that only one of the three major plots has a significant resolution.  (No, I’m not going to tell you which one, you should read the book and find out for yourself.)   That is not to say that the others don’t have a decent ending, but if one plot was going to really resolve itself for that main character, it should have received a proportionate percentage of the pages.  As it was, I felt slightly cheated by the ending.

The one satisfying conclusion Vox provides is a masterpiece.  The character’s journey leads to a surprise confrontation that only in retrospect seems inevitable, one of the great marks of a fiction author.  The protagonist’s solution is completely in character, dramatic, sacrificial, and touching.  The one storyline he resolved made me want to stand up and cheer.  It was brilliant.  It was so brilliant that the sometimes hard work getting there seemed worth it.  It was also necessary.  Two of the three stories are nowhere near done, and the one resolved plot promises to spin off at least two or three lesser plots if it doesn’t evolve into an entirely new arc in the next novel.  Vox makes his ending a promissory note instead of a complete payment, but at the end of Throne of Bones, his credit is good with me.  I will definitely be purchasing the next novel in the series (but definitely at the e-book price.)  His final words, “closing time” are very apt.  We’re not done with Vox’s fantasy world, and he’s gotten at least one more novel’s worth of effort out of me.

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