“The living had a tendency to make promises they could not keep.”
Seventeen-year-old Aderyn (“Ryn”) only cares about two things: her family, and her family’s graveyard. And right now, both are in dire straits. Since the death of their parents, Ryn and her siblings have been scraping together a meager existence as gravediggers in the remote village of Colbren, which sits at the foot of a harsh and deadly mountain range that was once home to the fae. The problem with being a gravedigger in Colbren, though, is that the dead don’t always stay dead.
The risen corpses are known as “bone houses,” and legend says that they’re the result of a decades-old curse. When Ellis, an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past, arrives in town, the bone houses attack with new ferocity. What is it about Ellis that draws them near? And more importantly, how can they be stopped for good?
Together, Ellis and Ryn embark on a journey that will take them deep into the heart of the mountains, where they will have to face both the curse and the long-hidden truths about themselves.
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
EXPECTED SEPTEMBER 24, 2019
CW: body horror, gore, loss of a loved one, animal death, violence
Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of zombies. I’m fascinated with the magic of necromancy and the moral consequences, but the actual half-rotted shuffling bodies really don’t do it for me. And yet The Bone Houses managed to push completely past that anti-zombie wall in me, and it came out the other side with five whole stars.
I’d call that a success, if nothing else.
Seriously, though, The Bone Houses is a phenomenal read, focusing not on the zombies and the inherent grossness of rotting dead shambling across the earth again, but on family and connection and the roots we lay down. It follows Ryn and Ellis in their quest to save Ryn’s family home from a predatory landlord and to crack open the secrets of Ellis’s past once and for all. There’s a loyal goat that I loved, siblings that felt so very personal to me, and a village that protects its own, even when the chips are down. In short, it’s got every ounce of love and loyalty that I absolutely crave.
But I should start with the characters. Ryn was a delight, stubborn and prickly and determined. The oldest of three, she would do anything to inherit her father’s work as a gravedigger and to protect the family home that’s stood on Colbren land for quite some time now. As the oldest of three myself, I attached to her immediately, especially since she collaborates more with her younger brother, who’s closer to her in age, and would do anything to protect her little sister, who’s the youngest but still smart and clever and determined. It mirrors my own family dynamic so, so closely that I couldn’t help but love them all with an immediate protectiveness. Plus, as the novel goes on, we get to see Ryn’s adaptability to change, especially change in the face of bone houses, the resurrected skeletons that wander the land at night, attacking the land and unwitting travelers. She may not know exactly what she’s doing, but she refuses to throw in the towel until she sees it through.
And then there’s Ellis, who is precisely the sort of character I adore. He’s a mapmaker, and by extension, a little bit of a nerd. Polite and on the quiet side, I liked him immediately, especially since he’s sincere at all times. There’s no lying and miscommunication with him, not when he’s so kind and respectful, and he’s shot to the top of the cinnamon roll love interest rankings. I can’t help but love him.
Ellis also suffers from chronic pain that stems from an old injury, and it features frequently over the course of the book. More than once, he’s limited in what he can do on the journey because his pain stands in the way, or because he overextended himself heedless of the warning signs. He expresses frustration with people who don’t experience chronic pain chipping in to suggest solutions that don’t really work, and his frustration with his own limitations. As I understand it, it seems to be a very realistic depiction of living with chronic pain, where some days are worse than others, certain movements can cause a flare up, and people love to offer unsolicited advice, largely to cure it rather than realistically manage and support it.
Really, I might have liked Ellis more than I liked Ryn, which is a rare thing for me to say when stubborn grump girl and soft sweet boy are the stars of the show, but there was something so earnest about him that had me attached from the get-go.
And as for the romance, it’s not too overbearing, and it’s not particularly involved. That said, I really liked it because the power dynamics are essentially equal, and it’s founded on this mutual appreciation and admiration for one another, and that’s the stuff that gets me SOFT. I’m the human heart eyes emoji over here, folks.
Characters and romance aside, though, I have to say the plot and world were excellent too. If I’m not mistaken, it’s Welsh-inspired, with hints of the fae at the edges, and little dustings of magic throughout. You get the sense that there’s a whole world beyond Colbren and the path Ellis and Ryn take into the uncharted, that there are more stories out there, and this is just the one we’re following today. And in this case, the story we’re following is a journey story.
Now, I know roadtrip stories put lots of folks off, but I actually found this one to be really well executed. It moves at a brisk pace, and there’s not too much dawdling in the woods for the sake of padding the word count. Instead, each stop has its own significance in unraveling the mysteries Ryn and Ellis are faced with, and these stops have moral ramifications to them as well. There’s one in particular that tugs on the heartstrings in a way that’s predictable but oh so satisfying, and then the final stop comes to a climax with such a simple but effective structure. I worried after that, concerned with how the book was going to wrap up with so little space left, but even that was handled deftly and in a way that leaves the story just a hair open to visit again, but still brings all the most important parts to a definitive close.
In short, The Bone Houses had everything I could ask for in characters, a plot that was simple but delightfully effective in its structure, and questions about family, life, and death that gave this standalone a beating heart of its own. If it sounds like something you want to read with the Halloween season upon us, you’re in luck, too! It releases on September 24th, leaving you just under three weeks to place a pre-order or make a request at your local library.
Please do it, even if you’re not fond of zombies, like me. This book can and will break past that, something I won’t ever stop appreciating.