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Women & Voodoo
August '08


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Bone Dance: A Fantasy for Technophiles
ISBN: 0441574572
By: Emma Bull
Reviewer: Winter S. Elliott

August 2008

A number of years ago, an acquaintance of mine correctly identified the biggest problem with Emma Bull.  “She’s a great writer,” he said, “and I love her books, but she just doesn’t write enough.”  That’s certainly true, and it’s even harder to get her books now, as some of her novels begin to go out of print.  Bone Dance is almost twenty years old, and may be difficult to procure unless you already have a copy or are willing to fork over your credit card number to Amazon.com.  Yet, if you don’t have a copy already, it’s definitely worth the trouble to get one.

Like all of Emma Bull’s books, Bone Dance is fun, a good book to curl up with if you’re looking for a rainy-day or a beach read.  It is, however, difficult to put down; the main character, Sparrow, is engaging and compelling (even when whining).  However, Sparrow has a secret that makes it difficult to write a review this book.  Sparrow is neuter, the recipient of a body designed to be inhabited by a Horseman, a body-jumping soldier who was once, a long-time ago, considered the ultimate weapon.  Inhabiting a body designed to mimic the gender of current company, Sparrow is neither male nor female.  Sparrow’s androgynous body can be termed neither “he” nor “she,” but “it” makes both Sparrow and me flinch.  While Bull leaves open the tantalizing hope that Sparrows already customized body can be modified still farther, and Sparrow might eventually be able to elect a gender, the best I can do now is follow Bull’s example and avoid pronouns.

Sparrow’s name suggests a small, weak creature, and for much of the book that is exactly what Sparrow seems:  a pawn caught up in an incomprehensible struggle.  The battle at the heart of the book is not really the usual battle between good and evil – for, with some of the characters, choosing either descriptor would be a matter of splitting hairs – but a conflict between the forces of change and stagnation.  The post-apocalyptic world of Bone Dance seems, at first glance, chaotic and dystopic, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear that Sparrow’s city, at least, is ordered and controlled by its leaders – so ordered and controlled that its energy – both in terms of electrical energy and spiritual power – is being choked to death.  Sparrow’s origins become clearer as the novel progresses.  While Sparrow has only been aware for fifteen years, several of other characters – both good and bad and a mixture of the two – have been active for decades.  These Horsemen ride bodies, slowly smothering the original personality or killing it outright, and are responsible for pushing the little red atomic button that plunged the world – or at least the western hemisphere – into its current chaos. 

That apocalypse, however, did not destroy all remnants of the previous civilization.  The subtitle of Bone Dance is A Fantasy for Technophiles – and Sparrow is certainly one.  Like a scavenger, Sparrow finds and preserves bits of technology and culture:  videotapes, books, music.  The “fantasy” element of the subtitle best describes the Horsemen and the magical structure of Bull’s world in this book.  Bull has borrowed freely from voodoo and hoodoo to create the spirits and goddesses  that drive change in Sparrow’s city.  Sparrow’s body is described as a cheval, a horse, meant to be ridden by the human Horsemen, but Sparrow is instead given life and taken over by Oya Iansa, “the goddess who brought revolution and the falling of towers.” 

While all of this is good for the city, it’s not quite so pleasant for Sparrow, who is not only caught at the center of the whirlwind, but is the whirlwind of change.  It leaves Sparrow seeking an identity, seeking freedom, seeking friendship and love.  Sparrow narrates the tale (and allows Bull to avoid the nagging problem of pronouns) but Bull still manages to fully depict many other characters as well.  Frances, a Horsemen (Horsewoman?), in particular, is compelling.  In order to occupy her current body, Frances had to snuff its original owner’s personality out of existence.  Yet, Frances isn’t entirely evil, and it’s the possibility of redemption that makes her compelling.

Bull gives little background for the magic, gods, and spirits of Sparrow’s world, so at first readers may feel a little bit like Sparrow, introduced to a strange, confusing, and not particularly benevolent pantheon.  The end of the book will also leave readers gasping for breath, but with the sense that they’ve had a particularly fine adventure. 


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