Fiction Reviews


(2023) Nicki Pau Preto, Hodderscape, £16.99, trdpbk, 451pp, ISBN 978-1-399-72235-3


The people of the Dominions have a serious problem with the dead. If not properly dealt with, they rise as ghosts to plague the living. Fortunately, bonesmiths are the solution: corpsepaint-wearing white hat necromancers who can not only fight off the spirits but lay their bodies to rest.

Wren is a highly skilled but maverick bonesmith-in-training - and a member of their noble house - who is set up to fail by a rival. Sent to do a punitive tour of duty at the Border Wall, which separates the Dominions from the Breachlands where the dead walk freely, she discovers her posting is not quite as dull as she was led to believe.

When a visiting prince is kidnapped during an inspection of the far side of the Wall, Wren makes it her mission to bring him home. She forms an unlikely alliance with Julian, one of the kidnappers yet betrayed by his own side, and they journey together through the wilderness and the haunts of the walking dead to bring the prince home.

Julian is an ironsmith with the power to manipulate his chosen element. As well as bonesmiths and ironsmiths there are also goldsmiths, silversmiths, stonesmiths – making for a whole lot of substance-specific telekinesis. While they head from peril to peril, he and Wren follow the traditional path from distrust and squabbling, through grudging respect and unacknowledged attraction, to then almost becoming an item. Needless to say, it’s not quite as simple as all that, politically or romantically, with both Wren and Julien discovering their world is not as they thought. Several twists towards the end of the novel set up at least one sequel.

I rather enjoyed Bonesmith for what it was: a secondary world young adult fantasy with a fair dose of romance. Its combination of swords and sorcery with a teenage goth aesthetic (death! ghosts! eyeliner!) is surprisingly effective. It’s also nice to see you can still come up with an original approach to magic in this day and age. The plot is taut and – once in motion – doesn’t let up.

Wren and Julian are strong, likeable characters, which is good as you do get to spend a lot of time with them over the course of the book. Pau Preto writes believable dialogue and gives the reader an immersive view into their hearts and minds. Wren in particular is tremendous fun and brings a whole lot of teen emo punk energy to fighting the undead.

It is a little cheesy in places – for example the map of the Dominions has clearly been inspired by a look at Iceland and one of the characters is called Ravenna Nekros (no prizes for guessing what side she’s on or where her interest lies). But overall Pau Preto’s writing elevates Bonesmith and makes the occasional cliché forgivable.

It’s not here to change the world or scramble your imagination, but if you’re looking for entertaining character-led heroic fantasy, then step right up.

Tim Atkinson


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