I’ve been asked to review 24 Bones by Michael F. Stewart as part of the author’s book tour with Tribute Books. I read the novel a couple weeks ago and the story is still in my mind so I didn’t have any trouble writing the review.
This is how the publisher summarises the book:
“Every five hundred years the phoenix dies.
Samiya, born-into-shadow, is soon to battle her born-into-light brother. Abandoned by their parents, neither wishes to play the preordained role of beast and hero. When their loved ones are taken hostage, they are forced to follow the path laid out in myth, culminating in a battle first fought six thousand years ago in ancient Cairo. A mythic clash where one defeats the other and both become gods.
To break free from their fates, Samiya and her brother must unravel a mystery twisted by cults, greed, and magic. But myth is a powerful force and failure to live up to it may not only destroy their lives but the lives of the ones they love most.
When the phoenix dies, the only certainty is flames.”
Can a dark tale be magical? 24 Bones is very dark in places but Stewart has created such a vivid, intriguing world that I found even the dark side magical. From an evil underworld in the City of the Dead to the desert monastic retreat of the Companions to modern Coptic Cairo to the Pyramids, Stewart brings both the real and the imaginary places to life. I’ve never been to Egypt but I would love to see the places that are now in my mind.
The story is grounded in Egyptian myth and the idea that there must be evil to counterbalance good and that this balance must be maintained. From this premise Stewart develops the struggle between the three groups who people the story: the evil Shemsu Seth, the good Shemsu Hor and the Sisters of Isis, nuns who are meant to maintain the balance but actually have their own agenda. Many characters are not completely black and white though and there are struggles within individuals as well as between the groups, adding depth to the tale. Stewart expresses the concepts of heaven and hell as Fullness and Void. Interestingly Void is not actually evil but a place of chaos and animal behaviour without conscience. In a poignant scene Samiya’s lover, Faris is lost to Void and she finds him left as a mindless shell only capable of animal-like responses while his spirit, personified as a lion, roams unfettered by human morals.
I was intrigued by the way Stewart links the Egyptian myths with elements of Coptic Christianity, inferring that the Christian tradition is an extension of ancient Egyptian beliefs. Whether this is indeed true doesn’t matter, he has skilfully developed the link between them so that the reader believes this in the context of the story.
Although the plot is entwined with Egyptian myth, the reader does not need to have a prior understanding of these myths to enjoy the story. Stewart sets out his world clearly and reveals everything the reader needs to know. The novel is also an engaging fantasy, even without its links to mythology, as Stewart has created a fully developed world that can stand on its own.
It wasn’t just the world that Stewart created that I enjoyed. I found many of the characters memorable. Samiya and David, the main characters are well developed, with internal conflicts that add depth and believability to them. I liked the way that Stewart sets David on a path toward destruction through his growing desire for power. It wasn’t what I expected or hoped for him but it unfolded naturally.
When I find myself caring what happens to characters and agonising over their choices, as I did while reading 24 Bones, I know a novel has touched me. It stimulated my imagination and my emotions. And that’s what a good book should do. I found this a gripping story and I have no reservations recommending it to anyone who enjoys fantasy novels or just a good story.
About Michael F. Stewart:
After crewing ships in the Antarctic and the Baltic Sea and some fun in venture capital, Michael anchored himself (happily) to a marriage and a boatload of kids. Now he injects his adventurous spirit into his writing with brief respites for research into the jungles of Sumatra and Guatemala, the ruins of Egypt and Tik’al, paddling the Zambezi and diving whatever cave or ocean reef will have him. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and SF Canada, and the author of the Assured Destruction series, 24 Bones, The Sand Dragon, Hurakan, Ruination and several award winning graphic novels for young adults.