Wizards of the Coast, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7869-5111-6
Fantasy Horror, 2008
Heaven’s Bones has a very pretty cover. Scans of the cover tend to be too dark because of the colors used by the artist, so this is one of those covers where you have to hold the book in your hands to appreciate the beauty of the cover art. I especially love the details given by the artist into the mechanical wings of the angel on the cover.
This one is supposed to be the first in the now-scrapped series of books based on “the Mist”. Please skip this paragraph if you do not care about the mechanics of the Ravenloft RPG game, of which this book is loosely based on. I’d say “loosely” because this book carries no explicit references of Ravenloft, although there are mentions of Kartakass and its darklord, spelled “Harkon Lucas” here. Perhaps it is better to say that this book represents the still underdeveloped fourth edition version of Ravenloft, which isn’t really Ravenloft as much as we are talking about domains of dread now existing as islands of terror inside Shadowfell. Because if we are to hold this book by the previous editions of Ravenloft, this one has many aspects that break the game canon. We have a Dukkar that actually manages to cross over the Mists and even escape the plane to come to Earth, a feat that would make Malocchio Aderre weep in envy. We have also have a darklord that crosses the border to enter another domain. The Mists are shown to be sentient and manipulative. These are just three key details that will have folks familiar with Ravenloft lore scratching their heads.
Anyway, let’s forget RPG game talk and now focus on the book. I can’t give away much about the plot because this is one that is full of twists and turns that the reader should remain unspoiled about in order to fully appreciate the story. Let’s just say that there are five different people whose worlds will collide here in a not very pretty way.
Dr Sebastian Robarts is an English doctor in the late 1800s. The hideous irony here is that while he is a widely respected gynecologist who is credited for creating a speculum that aided women whose birth canals are too narrow to facilitate easy childbirth, his device couldn’t save his wife or their child. Now unhinged by the tragedy, he begins to view women as tragic fallen angels destined to endure all kinds of hardship in life unless he can somehow give them back their wings. Hence, he begins his gruesome work, using streetwalkers in his experiments to remodel their bodies using surgery in his desire to “restore” them back to their angelic selves.
In another world, we have a male Vistana (a fancy name to a Gypsy-like folk in this setting) whose powers caused him to become an outcast among his own people. Embittered by his circumstances, he studied dark magic in order to become the boss of everyone. Alas, his ambition wasn’t meant to be when his own sister gutted him for being a big meanie. The confrontation caused the two of them to be flung from their world into ours. When this man meets Sebastian, he decides to use his magic to help Sebastian become unusually successful in his surgical experiments. He has his own reasons to do so, of course – he wants to use Sebastian and his army of angels to achieve his grand plan to show everyone that he’s the biggest of the bad.
Artemis Donovan is a detective at Whitechapel who is among the first people to stumble upon Sebastian’s first few botched handiworks. He has some psychic ability where he can see visions associated with the scene of crime, but his ability won’t help him much here when he has no idea what he is facing against. Sophia Huxley was born with a silver spoon in her mouth but she hangs out with the suffragists and ends up becoming a doctor spending her time working with streetwalkers and the poor in Whitechapel. Her profession means that she will end up meeting both Sebastian and Artemis and getting tangled up in both men’s lives.
And finally, lurking in the Mists, is the domain of Riverbend. The darklord, Alistair Weldon, is formerly an American plantation owner who performed grisly experiments on his slaves. His daughter Fanny hides from him and tries hard to recall what had happened to her family and their land since that day when the Yankee soldiers showed up and their slaves revolted against them. She couldn’t remember, much to her frustration, because those memories may be the key to understanding the fate that has befallen her and her family.
Heaven’s Bones is a very uneven read. There are some really good parts as well as some bewildering parts. The whole thing about Riverbend, for example, could have been easily removed from this story without affecting the overall storyline. The space that is freed up could have been used to develop the naughty Vistana’s story a little bit more, especially when later in the story the author introduces some last-moment deus-ex-machina type of concepts that allow the characters to conveniently find a way to beat the bad guy. These concepts could have been introduced slowly and spread more evenly throughout the story instead of being clustered towards the end, surely. The Vistana’s story is intriguing, but it is so poorly developed that there are more blanks and question marks in the whole thing than anything else.
The best part of this story deals with Sebastian. Oh my, this is indeed the most horrifying aspect of the story, one that I simply love. Sebastian is a very creepy villain because there are many aspects of him that are still recognizably human. He’s not a cartoon psychopath – he genuinely believes that he is working for some kind of greater good when he does all those unspeakable things to his “patients”. Artemis and Sophie could have been developed better (really, the Riverbend thing should have been ditched) but they are noble and very likable characters.
The backdrop is most impressive, by the way. I love how well Ms Henderson describes the sordid environment of the lower class folks in Whitechapel. From the streetwalkers to the cops whose hands are tied by upper-class superiors that care little for the people they are supposed to protect, the whole world comes alive to the point that it seems that I can see the sight, hear the sounds, and smell the stench of the place.
The plot build-up is fantastic but, as I’ve mentioned earlier, some convenient last-minute revelation that leads our good guys to a super weapon that can kill the bad guy ruins the payoff.
All in all, Heaven’s Bones is a rather bumpy read. When it is good, it is very good and scary. But it also has its share of clutter that doesn’t seem to go anywhere (Riverbend!). Still, I can’t deny that this story is a most entertaining one. If anything, I certainly won’t be forgetting this one in a while.