Kevin Howe, Bone Walk (Firelight Publishing, 2001)

The limited worldview of a medieval villager left most of the world a mystery. Each village was an isolated island, surrounded by the great unknown of the deep woods. All manner of evil could be ascribed to the forest — bandits, wild animals, "monsters." Their constant threat helped keep the commoners of the medieval world close to home. It took a significant event or special circumstances for the average person to venture forth.

Kevin Howe recreates these feelings of dread in the fictionalized medieval world of Bone Walk. The commoners and petty nobility of the village of Eden live on the edge of the vast and unexplored Western Wood. Fear of what lies therein has kept them entirely ignorant of the specific dangers that lurk within the Wood. Rumors and the ominous nature of the Western Wood are enough to keep any sensible person from exploring it. Only the foolhardy, the desperate, or the outcasts are willing to take that chance.

This situation has prevented exploration for as long as anyone can remember, but the appearance of strange, inhumanly beautiful works of art that originate in the Western Wood inspire one of Eden's nobility to send explorers westward. The chief counselor of Eden sees these artworks, and a mysterious set of books from the Wood, as a new resource to exploit. Believing that controlling the source of these items must lead to great power, he begins sending envoys to find their source. If he discovers the Wood's secrets, his long-desired plot to take real control of Eden can be brought to fruition.

After several envoys either disappear or return insane, an unlikely envoy is selected, one whose unique perspective and skills might lead to success where the others have failed. The village bookkeeper, Thomas Shepard, becomes the counselor's last, best hope. Thomas is a small, introverted man whose world barely extends beyond the counting room and grain warehouse. His lack of ambition and status makes him the ideal envoy — he would be the last person to attempt to exploit whatever he finds for his own ends. Despite the trepidation Thomas feels at facing the unknown, the known consequences of disobeying his feudal overlord are more immediate. Faced with the reality of medieval power relationships, he has no choice but to obey.

What follows is a journey of discovery for Thomas Shepard. He solves the mystery of the art trickling into Eden and uncovers the horror of the bone eaters. Thomas also finds reserves of character and personal feeling he never would have seen while still bound to the counting house. As a stand-in for any anonymous medieval serf, Thomas' constraints as a member of Eden's social order are burned so deeply into his brain that it takes a series of extraordinary events before he even considers broadening his perspective or taking charge of his own fate. These shackles limit his ability to express himself. Trapped in the counting room, his only outlet is mathematics. Taking initiative in any other area never enters his mind.

The sense of mystery that Howe builds throughout Bone Walk feeds on Shepard's limited worldview. Empathy for Shepard is built up in the reader; clues and information are doled out in equal amounts to the reader and the protagonist. This helps keep the reader on edge, looking forward to the solution to the Western Wood's mysteries. It also helps immerse the reader in the limited medieval perspective on the world, not knowing what one will find a short trip from one's home.

An unknown wilderness surrounded the world of the medieval villager. The barriers it placed on the lives of people made venturing forth, or breaking out of established patterns of behavior, difficult. Kevin Howe recreates this feeling in Bone Walk while still allowing for the believable development of the main character's personality. As Thomas Shepard ventures further from home, his understanding of the Western Wood's mysteries and his own depths of character grow. The result is an enjoyable book of exploration and adventure.

[Eric Eller]

You can find out more about Kevin Howe and his writing here.