Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

““I’m going to teach you ‘chanting. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of precision, and doing a whole lot of steps exactly right, but when it works, you can make some pretty awesome stuff.”

“Awesome would be a nice change,” Marla said.

–from the novella Bone Shop, by T. A. Pratt

If dark urban fantasy is your drug of choice, Tim Pratt’’s Bone Shop is up your alley.  This foul-rags-to-dubious-riches prequel to the Marla Mason series, chronicles a street urchin’’s rise through the ranks of sorcerers in the East Coast city of Felsport.  Pratt’’s hectic eclecticism is bound together in prose as frank as baling wire, tarnished here, burnished there and spattered everywhere with the solder of broken promises, dire prophecies and talking jawbones.  I’’m going to say this once, maybe twice:  Download it.  It’’s as free as a dirty needle, and the odds are better than even that it will infect you, leave you jittery, addicted, and wondering if you’’re sick.  It’’ll be OK.  There’’s more where this came from at http://www.marlamason.net

Pratt has peopled Felsport with a cast as intriguing as the magical artifacts they find, finagle and fiddle with in this tale of jiggered hopes and cracked dreams.  Jenny Click deserves a novella of her own (don’’t give her a copy; she’’d only set fire to it), while Artie Mann’’s ideas about sorcery deserve at least a spread in a dirty magazine.  In the end Bone Shop is, oddly enough, a morality tale.  At least, I think so.  I can’’t tell you what the moral is exactly, because that part of my memory has been wiped clean by a tincture of lethe water.  But I’m pretty sure that it has something to do with cobbling one’s ambitions together around a vacant heart.

There are problems with the hodge-podge of narrative fabrics and other magics Pratt has grabbed off the racks at the thrift shops of myth and imagination. Nothing so threadbare it can’’t be mended, but a little backstitching here and there would keep this dream from always threatening to unravel. In a few places, where the seams are turned needlessly inside-out, a little clipping is all that’’s needed. Let me show you what I mean:

Bone Shop begins with Marla Mason as a sixteen-year-old dropout.  Literate and homeless, she spends a lot of time at the public library, reading to keep warm. We never learn why she’’s on the streets and not in school, but we do come to understand it’’s a matter of preference. She is mentally tough and determined to improve her circumstances but certainly not by way of a traditional education.  She is not a stickler for rules.  Except, apparently, for grammatical ones.

Marla finds Artie—, the man who has taken her in, made her his apprentice, given her a semblance of a home and a family, —disemboweled.  She must go in search of his murderer.  Whatever sense of loyalty she may (or may not) feel toward the sorcerer has been augmented in advance by a magically binding oath of vengeance called a geas, which takes the form of Artie’’s voice screaming in her head until his killer is dead.  Stalking the perpetrator, Marla “[pushes] open a door marked ‘Employee’s Only.’ That stupid apostrophe [makes] her grit her teeth…”

Mind you, apostrophe abuse annoys me, too.  But an author poking his fingers through the fabric of a story with his pet grammatical peeve, while his protagonist is breathing down the neck of a serial killer is enough to make me wince.  (But I wax as pricklish, surely, as Pratt’’s sanctimonious angels, who stumble about in bum’s’ clothing, accusing everyone of, …well, of something not quite proper.)  I reluctantly absolve Pratt of the little crimes he commits and move on to Bone Shop‘’s bigger sins–—those of omission.

First is the baffling failure to introduce Somerset (a sorcerer of great historical significance in Felsport, apparently, but who knew?) until Marla needs a brand new nemesis.  Somerset is brought back from the dead, before we know that he ever lived, to fill a plot hole in the next to last chapter.  We learn that the democratic structure of the sitting “sorcerer’s council” is a reaction to Somerset’’s “reign of terror” while he was alive.  Since this is information that a teacher/sorcerer like Artie Mann might have imparted to his apprentices in memorable detail, its absence from Marla’’s early curriculum is regrettable.  It leaves the final levels of the fictional structure top-heavy and out of joint.

While Somerset’’s tardy appearance damages Bone Shop‘’s rickety structure, a lack of sufficient character development with regard to Marla’’s love interest, Daniel, saps vitality from the novella’’s soul.  The peripheral and superficial treatment of Daniel’’s personality prevents two important events from achieving sufficient credibility, or even comprehensibility.  The first of these is what Jenny Click, believing that Daniel must be dead, decides she must do about it.  (I won’’t tell you what that is, because she is one of the most intriguing minor characters I’’ve met in recent fiction, and you really should get to know her for yourself.)   Jenny’’s action stretches the cables of  my suspension-of-disbelief bridge to the snapping point, not because it isn’’t possible, even likely, but because Daniel is presented as little more than a cute butt with a vague Southernness.  While he possesses the rare ability to nourish himself on the energies of other people, places and things, he never accumulates enough narrative force of his own.  Marla falls in love with him.  How do we know?  Pratt tells us so.  How hard and what for?  We don’’t get to see.

Pratt is not a prudish writer, but he glides over the intimacies of Marla’’s and Daniel’’s relationship with an almost juvenile shyness.  Maybe he assumes that telling us about all the wild sex these two teenagers are having is enough to convince us that they mean something to one another.  It’’s not.  A little tenderness in these early scenes, an emotional resonance that the reader can tune into, would go a long way toward making the finale as unendurably poignant as it’’s meant to be.

Hearts are ripped out of their chests in this story; guts get wrenched, mangled and left steaming.  But not the reader’’s heart.  Not the reader’’s guts.  And that’’s a crying shame.  This improbable structure of bone and magical gewgaw that Pratt has somehow rigged together is surely sturdy enough, complex enough, lifelike enough to support the organ of poignancy he tries, too late, to animate.  We end up surprised by an ending that might have shocked his story to life —and shocked us numb with its bitter beauty.  But owing to a simple lack of preparation early on, that doesn’’t happen.  Pratt fumbles for the heartstrings of a strong plot and plucks them hard, only to find that they haven’’t been properly tuned.  They could be.  They ought to be.  The independent publishing platform that Pratt employs would allow for it.  Bone Shop has all the claws it needs to rip, wrench and mangle its way to an awesome conclusion.  All that’’s missing is the tender vitals.

This review of Bone Shop previously appeared at http://jschancellor.wordpress.com/

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