A good argument can be made for calling Emma Bull’s Bone Dance an urban fantasy. There is a great deal to do with the spirit world, events that are only explainable in terms of magic of some sort, and there are visitations from supernatural beings. However, the fact that it is set in a post-Apocalyptic dystopia, technology plays a pivotal role (although that is more because of its scarcity than because of its reliability), and the magic comes from “hoodoo” (Voudou is part of modern reality, for some of us at least) make me place it firmly in science fiction (which does, after all, leave room for beings with advanced mental powers).
Sparrow is the narrator, leading us through the maze of the City (which is only the City, no other name; it could, perhaps, be Minneapolis, Bull’s hometown, although a couple of references seem to place it south of The Border) a few decades after someone pushed the Button. The history is unclear, which doesn’t really matter – the damage was done, and what we must deal with is now. Life in Sparrow’s City runs on the Deal – money is hard or soft, favors are owed one way or the other, and that is the basis of trade. Sparrow is an electronics expert (although the explanation for this comes not until midway through the story) who runs a black market in old videotapes and sound recordings – black market because most of the information from before the Bang is subject to seizure and destruction by whatever authority there may be. In this case, the authority is A. A. Albrecht, who holds a monopoly on energy in the City proper. He is also one of Sparrow’s best customers for old movies, especially originals (as opposed to dupes), which bring very high prices. One of Sparrow’s haunts is the Night Market, where goods of all sorts are available from dusk until dawn; another is the Underbridge, a dance and video club of which Sparrow is one of the operators. Sparrow also has blackouts – periods of varying length that leave no memories, although Sparrow’s absence is apparently not obvious. Into this mix comes Frances, who, as it turns out, is one of the legendary and hated Horsemen, secret military weapons who could take over the bodies of others. It was the Horsemen who pushed the Button; Frances is on her way to kill Tom Worecski, who put together the plot to rain nuclear death on the Western Hemisphere and duped Frances and other of the Horsemen into participating. Mick Skinner is another who comes into Sparrow’s ken, seemingly briefly, since we discover that he has been dead since before they met. Events conspire to draw Sparrow into Frances’ search for Tom, and the interlocking relationships – Sherrea, perhaps Sparrow’s closest friend, who is a talented card reader; Theo, one of the other operators of Underbridge, who has a surprising relationship to Albrecht; Cassidy, who is setting himself up to be a victim; and Dana, who has connections – provide a fair measure of suspense.
I don’t really know what to compare this book to in order to give you some touchstones – perhaps Dhalgren meets The Maltese Falcon. The environment is near-hallucinatory, the more so because the main lighting seems to be neon (the Night Market is, after all, the Night Market). The context is very rich and detailed. Sparrow’s blackouts begin to intercut with hallucinations, involving stick figures who pass on cryptic messages; one of them is definitely Kokopelli, the trickster-hero of the ancient American Southwest, who speaks in lines from movies; another is, perhaps, Oya Iansa, who governs wind and the lightning and brings change.
Sparrow is a true anti-hero. Many of the surprises in the book come from the fact that Sparrow has an obsession about privacy, and is consequently not terribly perceptive of the details of others’ lives, even when those details are available. The reason for Sparrow’s privacy fetish is unveiled halfway through the book, along with revelations about the Horsemen: Sparrow, it turns out . . . no, I don’t think I’ll tell.
Bull is one of those writers who can pull you into a context with no effort. As hallucinatory and distasteful as this world is, you are there, and you go willingly. Her prose is tight and lucid, particularly when she is writing about the supernormal, which only makes it more real. Voudou and the Tarot form a major part of the foundation for this story, along with the key plot issue, which is energy as the operative force of the universe. Bull’s treatment of this reminds me of the philosophy of the creators of the original Whole Earth Catalogue, which was one of my touchstones during the 1970s – if energy keeps the universe turning, anything that has the potential to block the flow – like money, or too much power in too few hands (which seems to have become the same thing) – needs to be dealt with very carefully, and sometimes very forcefully.
“Coming of age” has a multitude of meanings, and it’s a type of story that I seem to have been running into a lot lately. Maybe that’s because every work of fiction is about coming of age in some sense. We move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to maturity, and not all parts of us make the progression at the same rate. Bone Dance is a coming-of-age story as much as anything else; and Bull uses it to explore one other thing that I want to note: how our perceptions of what others’ perceptions are or might be color our reactions – often before there is anything to react to. It’s also an object lesson in how opening ourselves to the wider world – the next stage of our lives – is often costly and hurtful, but necessary unless we are to give up our responsibility as human beings to be human beings.
This is a terrific book.