Disclosure: I bought this book of my own accord. The following review may contain affiliate links.
Title: The Bone Houses
Author: Emily Lloyd-Jones
Release Date: September 24, 2019
Genres: Young adult, Horror, Fantasy, Magical realism
Star Rating: 5/5
Seventeen-year-old Ryn has a lot of responsibilities: being her medieval hamlet’s only gravedigger, keeping her family from losing their home to a corrupt lord, and preventing long-dead corpses from escaping the neighboring woods. But when a mysterious, naive mapmaker named Ellis arrives from the kingdom’s capital, the village is overcome with reanimated “bone houses,” which destroy any scrap left of her family’s stability. The two teenagers journey into the thick, magical forest to find the reason for the multiplying hordes of the undead, and also to answer questions about their own families.
The prose of The Bone Houses is hauntingly beautiful, without being overbearing or detracting from the pace of the story. There’s just enough description to portray the nuance of each character, the desperation of Ryn’s poverty, and the implicit threats from their stingy feudal lord, Eynon. The world-building and lore carefully crafted by Lloyd-Jones pair excellently with the narration and description of settings. At several points in the story, I slowed down just to visualize and experience the legends and scenery for a little longer.
The dearth of well-written female characters in fantasy (especially in older works or those written by men) has kept me from reading the genre as regularly as I would like. Ryn, as well as the other women in The Bone Houses, has a refreshingly large amount of agency. In a genre where many women are written as little more than a trophy for a male hero, or as strong women who ultimately become little more than a plot device, it’s a great achievement to have multiple women who are fully dimensional and make choices for themselves.
Even rarer: the other main character, Ellis, has a significant disability that is handled in a realistic, yet respectful, way. There’s no angst over things he’s unable to do for easy sympathy from the reader, virtue implied on Ryn’s part for accepting him despite his injury, or improbable physical feats that he’s able to do without severe strain. I really appreciate seeing a portrayal that is so human, honest, and considerate of what it’s like to live with a major health issue, and I wish that disabilities were written this competently more often.
The Bone Houses ultimately lies somewhere between fantasy and horror. The subject of death and grief are addressed in very adult, but accessible, terms; the masterful writing accurately describes all the tiny moments of pain that come with bereavement, and also how moving on from loss can feel like abandonment or betrayal. It skillfully walks the line between grim and hopeful, and it’s hard to forget for a long time afterward. I would recommend this to anyone who likes their books bittersweet and poetic, but I hope that its progressive portrayal of its characters reaches a wider audience overall.
The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle
The Innkeeper’s Song, Peter S. Beagle (out of print - so take a look at the Amazon marketplace!)
Content warnings: grief, animal death, gore.
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