Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Review: The Bone Road

The Bone Road
The Bone Road by Mary Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimers out of the way first. Disclaimer 1: This book is up against mine in the Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book 2013 contest, in the F&SF division. Since I genuinely think that (apart from the editing, which I'll mention later) it's a better book than mine, I don't believe that's influenced me negatively.

Disclaimer 2: I didn't buy this book, though I was going to. The author saw my comment on a review by a mutual acquaintance (Ripley Patton) and offered me a copy, with no expectations attached.

In that comment, I mentioned that I'd very much enjoyed her previous book, Matcher Rules. There are some similarities between the two. Both feature a society where marriage customs and social structures are different from our own, both are told mainly from a female perspective but have a male viewpoint character part of the time, and both are very good.

I was hesitating initially about reading this book, because the blurb led me to believe that it was post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian. It's neither. It reminded me very much of the social SF/fantasy of Ursula Le Guin. I say SF/fantasy rather than SF because, as the author acknowledges, there's no genetic scenario that could create the situation the book depicts, where two groups of people can only produce fertile offspring by breeding with each other, not with their own group; and the "divvy gift" which enables some people to distinguish between the two groups with a touch is a straight-up psychic power. There's no magic or wizardry in the more classic sense, though, and to me it feels more like social science fiction with a low tech level, like some of Le Guin's works.

It's a long book, carefully plotted, full of twists and revelations, and it kept me guessing and kept me interested throughout. Though I'd developed some idea of what was going on before the ending, it still had some surprises. The characters were well fleshed out, with clear, powerful motivations, and they were strong and determined people.

Why not five stars, then?

Well, it came very close. Early on, I thought it was going to be a five-star book. As I read through, though, enough things wore away at my enjoyment that I couldn't quite award the fifth star.

Firstly, I never completely bought into the economic setup, which seemed to have too high a proportion of nomadic traders to food-producing settlements. I also, for a long time, found it hard to believe that the outcast Shun, a minority, unable to have children of their own, with various social handicaps, could have built the relatively prosperous and stable society that was depicted. Late in the book their key role in trading emerged, and it became more credible, but somehow the whole society never seemed completely natural to me. The ending of the book does give a reason why that might be so, but by that time I had spent most of the book thinking it didn't quite work.

As another minor example of worldbuilding that didn't quite work for me, a couple of characters state "there are no gods". Their society has taboos and superstitions, they have a sacred mountain from which the people, according to legend, emerged, and they obviously have the concept of "gods" or the statement couldn't be made, and yet they don't appear to have a religion as such. Again, I didn't find that credible. I can understand why the author might want to remove that complication, though I think it would also add richness, but... as a reader, I found myself not totally sold.

Beginnings and endings are important for stories (there's been a psychological study into it, and they influence ratings more than middles), and while the beginning is strong, the ending, I thought, contained an overly convenient escape that wasn't adequately foreshadowed.

Probably the main reason for the missing fifth star, though, were the editing issues. As per my usual practice when I have direct contact with the author, I'll be sending her a list of the ones I spotted (I mark them as I see them in my Kindle, then download the list using the ClippingsConverter website), so they may well be fixed soon. They were mostly apostrophe issues. The author doesn't seem to know where to put the apostrophe when a noun is plural, and there are one or two cases where an apostrophe is inserted where it doesn't belong. There are also a number of comma splices (sentences that should be separate, but are joined by a comma), some missing commas and a couple of homonym errors and mechanical errors (missing or repeated words). I usually don't ding books too much for these issues nowadays (especially because they're likely to be corrected), but I do when there are a lot of them, and there were over a hundred. Apart from that, the writing is smooth, and stays out of the way of the story. I listened to the author's other book on Podiobooks, so it very likely has the same problems; one of the advantages of an audiobook for me is that I can't be annoyed by the punctuation.

I've spent a lot of space in this review talking about the negatives, so I want to close by saying that this is an excellent story, well told, with characters that I found memorable and admirable. As a story, it has a depth and richness to it that I don't often see. If I'd been able to set aside my hesitations about the worldbuilding and my annoyance at the editing and really immerse myself in it, I think it would have definitely earned five stars from me.

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