Yea verily, I have stumbled upon awesomeness, and I am heartily pleased. Martha Wells writes the sort of settings that I aspire to: those rich with detail and culture, so well-captured that you feel the dusty heat of the road rising up from the pages.
City of Bones is set in the towering city of Charisat, in the desert, at the fringe of what remains of humanity. Water is so scarce, it is used conceptually to represent wealth. The immensely wealthy have so much water, they have a pool just to drown people in. They have plants and trees all over their grounds. The poor have trickling fountains where rent is paid by buying water for the day or week. Aside from any rent one might have to pay otherwise. The poor have dusty roads and ramshackle ruins to live and do business in. I was surprised there wasn't more corruption among the water talliers. Maybe they're all required to be nice old men who know when not to hang around and eavesdrop.
The main male character of the book is Khat, a non-human krisman from the Waste. He's got a few useful features that make him stand out to observant humans, as well as keep him alive in the monster-infested lava tubes of the Waste. An all-around useful fellow, Khat takes his lumps and uses his brains, and solves a few ancient mysteries as the book progresses. As a relic-dealer, he's got a more learned perspective on history and culture, and as an outsider, he brings unique views to his job and to the plot.
The main female character is a Warder named Elen. Supposedly weak in actual magic, she's labeled a whiz at political maneuvers and ninja moves. Sadly, neither of these made much of an appearance, and the rest of the time, she was awfully wilting-violet for a kick-ass heroine. Some of this was explained as a purposeful sabotage against her, and that was pretty cool, but I prefer my heroines to be full of awesome personality in some respect or another, and it took Elen the whole book to really discover who she was. This was great character development. But as a reader, I kept urging her to step out a little more than she did; couldn't shake the odd impression that she was pale with enormous, frightened eyes all throughout the book. Which is odd considering that the richest folk in the city (of which she was one) are supposed to be the darkest-skinned, due to their descendance from the Survivors, who had a lot more sun exposure (and a high interest in veils) in their past than the poor people who have to live in the shaded alleys and cul-de-sacs on the lower tiers of the city. More a mental projection on my part, I guess.
So, City of Bones. Where do the bones come in? Ohh, that was entertaining, and occasionally creepy. Burning bone fragments was supposed to reveal the future...but only if you burned the right sort of bone fragments. And creepiest of all, there is more than one interpretation of "right". I loved this part, although it felt a little too tenuous to get the book named after it.
On the flip side of the creepiness coin is the madness that using the Ancient magic can bring to the Warders. Everyone talked about this, and how people used to be executed after going mad, but that whole build-up throughout the story sort of petered out into a disappointment. No one even came close to going mad, and those who were already "mad" seemed to merely possess an alternate politico-magical point of view, as well as a few arcane details unbeknownst to our heroes. A letdown indeed after reading how Lois McMaster Bujold handled madness in her delightful The Curse of Chalion.
It was mentally entertaining to see this post-apocalyptic society, part of a network of trading cities based on water locations, and so fully enmeshed in ancient magic, reach out and embrace "ancient engines" and use steam power and air power for its wagons. It was like watching cyberpunk mesh with a scorched-earth Arabia. Clockwork fans FTW! (For the longest time, I kept trying to picture a circulating fan there, but eventually I realized it must be pendular in motion. Then I felt cool.)
Charisat and its culture were very solidly rooted in their history, and felt real and tangible in good ways. When the book approached the climax, however, the vagueness of the ancient engines exploded into the enemies' territory, and everything got a little psychedelic. They didn't all live in a jar of Tang, but it had that sort of unattached-to-any-reality flavor, and I prefer raspberry. I noted this same flavor in a later book, so I fear it is either a favorite of this author or a flaw in explanation, to present the otherworldly bad-guy plane as vaguely bizarre and leave it at that. If you're going to take me to another plane of existence, let's at least get the nickel tour, is all I'm asking. There was a lot of substance, with little explanation, and unverified information tends to leak right back out of my ears pretty quickly, when it's all made-up to start with.
I guess what I'm saying is that I just want to live in Charisat, where everything's made up and the points don't matter. Oh wait, that's Whose Line is it Anyway. Charisat is the awesome place with tiers, veils, Warders, water prices, and illicit coinage called "days". Sign me up!
Ms. Wells has the most awesome settings I've read in awhile, and they touch deep cultural levels, many-layered with meaning. For this awesomeness which I love to immerse my brain in and marinade overnight, I give this book four and a half of five stars.