The Empire Strikes Back. Toy Story 2. Road Warrior. No doubt most would recognize this pattern. Sometimes the second outing is just better than the first. That doesn’t mean there was something wrong with the original, it just got outclassed. This is something I rarely find in books though; the ‘middle book syndrome’ of lackluster filler is much more common in fantasy genre trilogies. Not this time though, The Bone Palace is the second book of The Necromancer Chronicles and is one of the best middle books I have ever read.
Better? It doesn’t really have to act as a middle book. How many times has someone told you about this great series they love but, oh ya, you gotta get though the first two books before it actually gets good? Despite being book two a new reader to the series could start with The Bone Palace and need no primer beyond the backstory provided within the current volume. As someone that enjoyed but wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about The Drowning City I would recommend this approach; one could always go backwards if they found themselves enjoying The Bone Palace as much as I did (kinda of a Machete Order kind of thing).
This is a book of escalating events, starting with a simple investigation of an unfortunate soul and growing into a fight for everything. The story follows two characters though their increasingly intertwined paths. Isyllt is the familiar face, the necromancer who stared in the first book is back in her home city. It is she who investigates why a royal signet is found on the body of a murdered woman. Her investigation will lead her through secrets of the whole city; both poor and powerful are caught in events to come. I enjoyed every page of her investigation, I really did. It is a woman named Savedra who is the star though. Concubine to the prince, she defies every expectation and trope. She is strong, uses her high born influence, and is as smart as they come. She is sympathetic and immediately likeable; her relationship with the princess of whom the tropes would dictate she despise turns into a beautiful portion of the story.
Transition into a quick note on vampires, then on to more important things. I get it, we are all a bit tired of vampires. Everyone has a unique version of them. But ignore your issues, pretend they haven’t overstayed their welcome because they truly are something else in this tale. Fringe dwellers forced to follow a treaty that keeps them from walking the streets openly, these are something different. (Ironically the closest vampires I can think of are those in Blade 2, another movie better than the first). They also sit nicely in the background of the story; important but never becoming the central focus. There is a minor dues ex machine moment that comes about because of their presence but it actually feels right in context.
Lately there has been a lot of talk about what should and shouldn’t be in a book, specifically relating to diversity of cast. The word that makes me grind my teeth is ‘quota,’ as if there is a spreadsheet of character types being forced on authors in order to make everyone happy. The Bone Palace is just another example that proves a story can have people, ALL the people, and be even better for it. It would pass any quota checklist put in front of it, and it feels completely natural to the world. No preaching, nothing feels forced (not that I have ever seen diversity that felt forced, but you know…), The Necromancer Chronicles is just set in a world with a different vibe. It is wonderful.
Specifically worth mentioning is the third gender, transgender individuals such as Savedra. That Savedra’s gender is not a secret despite her high profile makes this a different kind of tale. Later in the book we see another third gendered person who wasn’t born into such respected circumstances and his path is laid out a bit different by society. Whether the representation works is something I am hardly qualified to comment on. I was interested enough to look around and came up with a few very different viewpoints. But as a reader who wants to see something different (and hopes for a day where something like this is commonplace enough not to mention) I found it very effective.
With all that said I want to get back to what I loved about this book. Yes, I am impressed with the author’s willingness to build a society so different than the fantasy norm (if there is such a norm, perhaps fantasy stereotype would have been a better phrase). But more than that I loved the characters, enjoyed the story, and was riveted by the plot turns. Highly recommended.