Before I start writing about the Bones of the Old Ones, I’m going to warn you about possible bias. I’ve known Howard for about a decade, from back when Sword’s Edge used to be an ezine. I got to know Howard because as a fledgling ezine that didn’t pay, I had to go hunting for writers and reprints. I found Howard’s work at another ezine, asked him if I could reprint his stuff. Howard did a few stories for Sword’s Edge back then, and I was constantly amazed he was giving this stuff away for free. I told him so.
Howard worked hard to get where he is today, and he deserves continued success. I like Howard as a writer and as a person. I got the chance to meet him at Gen Con 2011, and we’ve had him on our podcast (and hopefully will do so again). So I have a bias toward his work.
And I would likely do so anyway, considering he pretty much writes exactly what I want to read.
The Bones of the Old Ones seems crafted totally for me. It’s an excellent mixture of sword & sorcery action-adventure, investigation/mystery, and supernatural suspense. It hit all the right notes, and Howard is great at weaving a spare but evocative narrative. The plot is filled with twists and thrills, but doesn’t overwhelm or overstay its welcome.
The story starts with Dabir and Asim meeting a mysterious young lady who some strange and intimidating men are chasing. The blurb does a better job at summarizing the plot than I could:
As a snowfall blankets 8th century Mosul, a Persian noblewoman arrives at the home of the scholar Dabir and his friend the swordsman Captain Asim. Najya has escaped from a dangerous cabal that has ensorcelled her to track down ancient magical tools of tremendous power, the bones of the old ones.
To stop the cabal and save Najya, Dabir and Asim venture into the worst winter in human memory, hunted by a shape-changing assassin. The stalwart Asim is drawn irresistibly toward the beautiful Persian even as Dabir realizes she may be far more dangerous a threat than anyone who pursues them, for her enchantment worsens with the winter. As their opposition grows, Dabir and Asim have no choice but to ally with their deadliest enemy, the treacherous Greek necromancer, Lydia. But even if they can trust one another long enough to escape their foes, it may be too late for Najya, whose soul is bound up with a vengeful spirit intent on sheathing the world in ice for a thousand years…
Here’s the thing: if you like sword & sorcery, I am almost certain you will love the Bones of the Old Ones. Howard has the ability to deliver a tale not unlike the other Howard (Robert E). REH could fill the page with rich prose that did not veer into the purple, and Howard Andrew Jones writes in a kind of modern version of that original pulp. His writing is evocative and exciting, just as the old pulps were, but remains tight and focused. I am not a fan of bloated epics, and so reading a book that uses just enough pages to tell the story without meandering off into unnecessary asides was a pleasure.
This book is also a real story, not a collection of strings linking one action scene to another. There is, of course, plenty of action in this adventure, and there’s even death-defying derring-do (how can you not love the 4D?), but it does not overwhelm. The core of the story is Dabir and Asim, and while some of the secondary characters are not as rich as these two, that is understandable. There’s only so much I need to know about Jibril to be invested in his character and understand his motivations, and that’s what Howard delivers.
Should I say there are weaknesses? Problems? Should I leaven the praise with some criticism? I probably should, but that’s difficult, considering I really found no weaknesses with the story. Did Najya fall into Dabir and Asim’s laps a little too easily? Was it a little too convenient that she is brought to the two? Maybe, but that’s kind of how sword & sorcery works. The heroes find themselves in a situation and we watch them get out of it. Besides, creating a more convoluted method for the two heroes to meet the plot motivator would add unnecessary weight onto this concise work. I appreciate that the story starts at the story’s beginning, and doesn’t create an artificial first chapter to get us into the action.
Bottom line: as with Desert of Souls, the Bones of the Old Ones is a ripping yarn, written with economic authority, and is head and shoulders above most of the fantasy fiction you’ll find on the bookstore shelves. This is pretty much a perfect sword & sorcery story, and I will actually give it a perfect score – recognizing that nothing in this world is perfect, but goddamn this is as close to perfect as we are ever likely to see.
I give the Bones of the Old Ones 5 flying carpets out of 5.
I received a review copy of this book.