As soon as I finished reading Chris Evans’ novel Of Bone and Thunder, I immediately went to Roger Ebert’s website and reread his review of Platoon. Publishers Weekly characterizes Evans’ novel as “Apocalypse Now meets Lord of the Rings,” but I think the book’s themes channel Oliver Stone more than Coppola. But don’t let me stray too far discussing American movies about Vietnam. I bring up Ebert because he was a brilliant, compassionate observer – of both film and the human condition. And I am a child of the 80’s, whose first glimpse into the horrors of the Vietnam War came not from history class, but from a Charlie Sheen flick.
Ebert’s Platoon review ends with a grave piece of advice: Before you can make any vast, sweeping statements about Vietnam, you have to begin by understanding the bottom line, which is that a lot of people went over there and got killed, dead, and that is what the war meant for them.
Chris Evans understands, and he makes his statements with crossbowmen as infantrymen, dragons instead of Hueys, M.A.S.H. wizards and mage radio operators. Red Shield is the platoon on the ground, fighting the Kingdom’s war against the Forest Collective, deep in the mountain jungles of Western Luitox. The Forest Collective resemble elves or goblins, are characterized as “disgruntled peasants” and given the derogatory nickname slyts by the troops. The FC’s guerilla tactics are more than a match for Crossbowman Carnin “Carny” Qillibrin and his fellow soldiers, enduring wicked heat rash, relentless insects, haphazard training, and each other.
In the air, Flock Commander Vorly Astol captains his beloved dragon Carduus and learns to get along with a newly assigned RAT, Breeze, a mage from the Royal Academy of Thaumology who operates a communications crystal that’s totally new magic-tech and resembles a cross between an iPad and a magic mirror. This device, and the fact that Breeze is a woman, irritate and terrify Vorly – at first. Breeze’s skills, and the even stronger abilities of her fellow mage Jawn Rathim, will have great impact on the battles in the Valley of Bone and Thunder.
Let’s not ignore the dragons, though. The rags, as they’re nicknamed, aren’t simply tossed into the story as a handy fantasy trope. We see them from all perspectives – in the fearful troops’ last-minute training on how to avoid being eaten or crushed; from in the saddle as Jawn pukes his way through his first dragon landing, and through the respectful eyes of the dragonsmiths. There’s a lot to be learned about dragon husbandry here, but I won’t spoil it.
The lexicon of slang in the novel is colorful and spot-on, and as can be expected in a military novel, not always politically correct. Evans calls up all the war tropes and gives them new dimensions: the raw recruits (fawns), the racial tension (freed dwarf slaves are denigrated as mules); embedded journalists (criers). He doesn’t leave out the delusions of battlefield glory; drug abuse; war propaganda; disinformation campaigns; the killing of women and children.
I kept asking myself while I read Of Bone and Thunder – is this book necessary? Do we need another book that riffs on Vietnam, regardless of genre? Science fiction and fantasy stories are fertile ground for social commentary. Sometimes – not always – the focus is more on the glory of battle, though, rather than the reality that war is hell. Props to Evans for focusing on the latter. And yet – I had expectations for this novel, which in hindsight weren’t fair, but which still hover in my head. I wanted a novel from both perspectives – the one portrayed and that of the Forest Collective. I wanted a book that incorporated the struggles and suffering of The Other – TheEnemy – too. I kind of expected Carny or Wraith to go full Natty Bumppo, but maybe that’s coming in the next books? Maybe I’m the only one who hopes for that.
There’s a lot of death in this novel – like, Game of Thrones level body count. Maybe that’s the takeaway – people get killed, dead, and that’s war. We shouldn’t ever stop reminding ourselves of this.
I received this book as an ARC from Netgalley.