I review Vox Day’s lengthy novel ‘A Throne of Bones’ and find it to be very, very good.
Shakespeare, according to Wikipedia, “was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist”.
Not, of course, that this was the view in his day. In his day the nobles and the elites were very concerned about theatre as a low-class and vulgar form of entertainment.
In fact in 1596 theatres were banned in the City of London, leading to the construction of new theatres on the south bank of the Thames such as the Old Globe theatre.
I mention Shakespeare not because Vox seeks to be as populist as him but because many themes are drawn from the famous play, Julius Caesar.
‘A Throne of Bones’ (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) is set in a fantasy world dominated by the ‘Republic of Amorr’, which is almost indistinguishable from the Roman Republic in the real world. A major difference is that a monotheistic faith very similar to Christianity is already the official state religion. In the real Rome that did not happen until the Republic had been replaced by the Roman Empire. Another difference from the real world is that Amorr’s world contains the usual fantasy tropes such as elves, dwarves, goblins, demons and magic users.
The story concerns power struggles between a number of supernatural and mortal factions inside Amorr and neighbouring states.
A fascinating difference from much of ‘social justice’ focused modern fiction is that that the ‘Immaculate’ – the One True God of the Amorr, is made clear in the setting to be very, very real. There is an earlier book in the same world by Vox called ‘Summa Elvetica’ (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk), which ends with two short stories in which the ‘Immaculate’ directly intervenes and utterly crushes his opposition.
In contrast most contemporary science fiction and fantasy from the ‘mainstream’ always ends with shocking revelations that the gods are false or entirely imaginary. The ‘revelation’ has become so de rigeur in fantasy as to be a cliché. An example is the recent game Pillars of Eternity (spoiler – the gods are synthetic magical constructs).
Whilst there is some hint that the one God may be something different from the simplistic concepts of the humans, there is clearly something very, very powerful at work. A similar approach is seen to the intervention of ‘God’ in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. When that series ended revealing that in fact, ‘God’ was, well, God the regressive left were enraged.
In the city of Amorr (capital of the Republic) politicians on the senate vie for power in a very detailed political system modelled closely on the tribal and republican system of ancient Rome, complete with detailed accounts of public tribal votes.
Amorr is surrounded by client / vassal city states. One Amorran faction seeks to head off instability by making the people of the client cities equal citizens, whilst another seeks to keep Amorr pre-eminent. Various members of the faction are assassinated in a manner very close to Julius Caesar.
Elsewhere, nordic / viking analogues flee to Savondir (a medieval France analogue) seeking to escape a plague of werewolves. The portrayal of Savondir features the complex conflicts amongst the aristocracy albeit as a secondary story to the conflict within Amorr.
Of the elements of the story, the elves are the closest to the Tolkien-esque trope of a race in decline. However even here there are novel and atypical elements – the reliance of the elves on demons and magic is challenged by the ‘Immaculate’ whose servants seem to be able to utterly trump it. This is not a theme seen in much modern fantasy. In Tolkien, elven ‘magic’ was a manifestation of divine arts. In dungeons and dragons the pantheistic gods of the setting generally do not oppose or challenge magic as a tool.
The dwarves, goblins and orcs of the setting are perhaps closest to the fantasy stereotype with a recent siege of a dwarven stronghold being a major theme in the story. As in Tolkien the goblins and orcs serve as the barbarians at the gates – an analogy perhaps more apt in this case.
‘A Throne of Bones’ is superior and intelligent fantasy. It is like a novelisation of ‘Julius Caesar’, with a serious tone and detailed exposition – then with the acid trip of high fantasy. Where it differs from the works of the bard to Vox’s detriment is that this is not tabloid entertainment. Shakespeare is remembered precisely because he was producing the tabloid mass market entertainment of his day. Being considered vulgar by the so-called great and good did not stop the masses flocking to his plays.
‘A Throne of Bones’ has the sophistication but not perhaps the populist appeal. Intelligent, educated people who enjoy fantasy may appreciate the detailed rendering of ancient pseudo-Rome and the classical references. That will certainly stand him in good stead in parts of the fantasy niche market but does not have the sales reach of Mills and Boon or Conan the Barbarian.
Even so the writing is clear and sharp. There is no problem here with quality, exposition or characterisation. A strength of Vox’s writing is to create a cast of believable characters each with their own strengths and flaws, goals, passions and fears.
Despite its intellectual depth Vox’s work certainly appeals more than the loathesome, deathly dull cookie-cutter work of his rivals in which historical accuracy and human nature are often cast aside to match the narrative. Many people would rather read ‘Summa Elvetica’ fifty times over than have to struggle through ‘The Subtle Knife’ by Philip Pullman.
Indeed, to some extent Vox appears to benefit from the relatively unique political and religious perspectives of his work. The historic depth and reach of fantasy unconstrained by the politics of identity is (as Vox himself has argued) a rarity amidst the modern staple of virtue signalling fantasy fiction.
‘A Throne of Bones’ is superior upmarket fantasy when considered on its own merits and even more appealing given the current context. Well worth a read.