Emma Bull: Bone Dance

I’m not going to tell you how long it’s been since I first read Emma Bull’s Bone Dance. Suffice it to say that it’s been long enough that when the Chief asked me for a new review of the new edition, it was like coming to it almost fresh.

The narrator is Sparrow, who is a finder of old videotapes, with some expertise in electronics. This is post Apocalypse, known here as the Bang, when someone pushed the button, and information from before is subject to seizure by the authorities. The authorities also have a monopoly on energy. The economy is barter or runs on the Deal, a system of debts and obligations that serves to keep things in balance.

Into Sparrow’s more-or-less comfortable existence (“more-or-less” because Sparrow is subject to blackouts during which her body goes about business as usual — she thinks) drop a couple of the Horsemen — agents developed as spies and black ops experts, they have the ability to occupy others’ bodies. It as a cabal of Horsemen who pushed the button, and now a couple of them have come to town. One, Mick Skinner, is following his own agenda — or running from something — and the other, Frances, has an agenda that’s no secret at all: she’s out to get Tom Worecski, the Horseman who put together Doomsday.

There are layers of interlocking mysteries here, small ones and large ones — Sparrow’s origins are one of the most important, because she doesn’t know where she came from, or even what she is. They all come together, eventually.

It’s hard to know how to classify this novel (not something I like to do, but it does make things easier if we have some frame of reference): dystopian future fiction, certainly, with a nod to steampunk. It also verges on urban fantasy, with a touch of classic horror tropes — hoodoo is a big part of the story and the milieu, and the loas play key roles. And it’s a thriller, somewhat slow starting (which is no problem, because Bull is a captivating writer, and what she takes the time to build here is rich and engrossing), but the crisis/climax builds up a lot of tension. In some ways it reminds me of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren — the same sort of hallucinatory feel to it, the same kind of mad poetry in the spaces between the words, and in much the same way as that classic, it’s a coming of age story. There’s an element of noir detective fiction, with a layer of hard-boiled war story, mostly evident in the characters of Frances and Tom Worecski.

And speaking of characters — Bull has done an amazing job of painting characters, particularly as filtered through Sparrow’s own perceptions. A very private person herself (for good reason, as it turns out), she begins to realize that she doesn’t really know her associates — she resists calling them “friends” — very well at all: there are capabilities and connections among them that Sparrow had somehow missed. One of the most rewarding parts of the book, I think, is that as Sparrow’s perceptions widen, so do ours — the characters develop, and it’s only on reflection that we realize that what they develop into was always there.

The whole book is structured around the Tarot, or at least the cards shape the tone and action of each chapter. But the arcana are filtered through the loas of Voudon, and Bull even manages to bring in some American Indian lore: Sparrow sometimes has dreams, or hallucinations, of being a stick figure in a line with other stick figures, one of whom is a dead ringer for Kokopelli, one of the Trickster gods of North America. This Kokopelli, though, speaks in lines from movies.

There can be magic that’s part of the story, and there can be magic in the telling of the story. Bull’s managed both, and quite nicely.

(Orb [Tom Doherty Associates], 2009)

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