A THRONE OF BONES, by Vox Day (UPDATED)

I didn’t have much time to work over the Christmas holidays, which I suppose is the point of the Christmas holidays. But I did have quite a bit of time to read. So let’s have some book reviews!

A THRONE OF BONES, by Vox Day, is one of the more ambitious epic fantasy novels I have read. To understand how this book works, consider these three historical periods:

-The Roman Republic at about 148 BC or so (or about 91 BC, right at the start of the Social War), after the final defeat of Carthage, when the acquisition of provinces and an empire corroded Rome’s senatorial oligarchy.

-The high medieval Catholic Church at the height of its intellectual and spiritual vigor. Say about 1250 AD or so, roughly the time of Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus and Robert Grossteste.

-Early modern France, perhaps about the time of Louis XI the Spider King, when the French king wielded vast power, but could still be challenged by unruly noblemen.

Now collapse these three time periods into one, add goblins and elves and sorcery, and you’ll have the setting of A THRONE OF BONES. So you have republican-era Roman legions fighting goblin tribes on the frontier, only to return in haste to Rome when the Pope is murdered by a sorcerer, while French knights battle against a race of werewolves.

The plot centers around the Sacred Republic of Amorr (which is, of course, “Roma” spelled backwards with an extra R) and an impending civil war between several factions of Amorran noble families, along with the peculiar circumstances around the death of the Sanctiff, the head of the Church. Meanwhile, the King of Savondir (the fantasy version of late medieval France) receives an appeal from the Dalarn, a Viking-like culture from the northern isles. They’re about to be wiped out by invaders, and desperately seek to settle in the King’s lands. Elsewhere a huge horde of orcs prepares to invade the Amorran lands, and there are are rumblings that an ancient shadow war between a mysterious group of immortal sorcerers is about to come into the open.

I enjoyed the historical verisimilitude of the novel, especially the depiction of the Amorran republican legions. (It is in my opinion a bit fallacious to argue for historical “realism” in fantasy novels – if a book has characters that can shoot lightning bolts from their fingers, the writer have taken realism out back to be shot. Historical verisimilitude is then the best the writer can reach for, then, something I’ve done myself.)  In that vein, the battle scenes are very well done. Additionally, none of the characters are caricatures. All of the nobles involved in, say, the Amorran civil war, have completely understandable motives for their actions, and none of the (human) characters are villainous so much as they hold incompatible views of how the world should work.

The author deliberately wrote the book in response to the moral nihilism of many contemporary epic fantasy novels. Many elements, in particular the civil war between noble families, seems to owe its inspiration to George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE (though SONG was based on the War of the Roses, and A THRONE OF BONES seems based on the Social War of the Roman Republic.) The character of Corvus, for example, seems similar to Ned Stark in SONG, and like Ned Stark, makes a honorable but nonetheless stupid decision that has long-reaching bad consequences. Additionally, the character of Severa is quite similar to Cersei Lannister. All that said, the author tells his own story, and Severa is a more interesting character than Cersei (who seems to have, by the latest volume of SONG, been transformed into the permanent bearer of the Idiot Ball).

In the end, I enjoyed the book and recommend it, though with a caution that someone thoroughly familiar with Roman history would enjoy the book more (a glossary of characters, many of whom have very similar names and are interrelated, would be welcome, along with perhaps a glossary of terms for readers who are unsure of the difference between a praetor, a propraetor, and a quaestor), and that I will reserve final judgment until the last volume of the series comes out.

As a final note, this book proves one of my favorite points – that -self-publishing ebooks will lead to far more diverse and rich literature. (The book has a paper edition, but I am certain the ebook will vastly outsell it during the lifetime of the book.) Yes, the book was published through a small press, but the author just as easily could have put it out himself. To put it bluntly, this is an excellent book, but not one that would have been placed with a large publisher, partly because of its complexity, and partly because the author’s personal politics (which don’t turn up in the book) are sharply at odds with the mushy SWPL-ism of most editors at large publishers. Ebooks give writers the ability to reach an audience previously only enjoyed by the 0.1% of writers published by large houses.

-JM

UPDATE: The author emailed to let me know that the latest version of the ebook and the hardcover edition both have a glossary of characters, along with an explanation of how Roman/Amorran names work. So if you purchase either the ebook or the hardcover, you’ll get the glossary of characters.

5 thoughts on “A THRONE OF BONES, by Vox Day (UPDATED)

  1. This is a really late comment, but I have been really busy as of the last few weeks, sorry:

    Yes! I was hoping the book was good! You were the one who pointed it out to me to begin with, and sine then I have checked into it a bit, it looked like it could be something big, glad it turned out that way! :)
    Some comments/questions:
    The idea of combining the Roman Republic with the Medieval Church is a very interesting one, I don’t think I have ever come across that one before. Alot of the time when Rome (or a fantasy counterpart) is portrayed here or there in books, films, games, etc it’s always a pagan Rome that is shown, they seem to have the bad habit of forgetting the Roman empire’s conversion, not to mention it’s sister empire, Byzantine.

    “All of the nobles involved in, say, the Amorran civil war, have completely understandable motives for their actions, and none of the (human) characters are villainous so much as they hold incompatible views of how the world should work.”
    Interesting. Sympathetic villians are not lost on me, though I do enjoy classic evil. One of the reasons Dragon Age: Origins was so good and interesting was that it used both.

    “The author deliberately wrote the book in response to the moral nihilism of many contemporary epic fantasy novels.”
    Making him quite a rarity. I like this guy already! ;)

    “The character of Corvus, for example, seems similar to Ned Stark in SONG, and like Ned Stark, makes a honorable but nonetheless stupid decision that has long-reaching bad consequences.”
    Poor Ned. Probably the most noble character in all of SONG (one of the only, if the only, ones actually), and he got whacked right in the first book. I believe it was Tom Simon who said something like the only characters left by book 3 were either villians or victims or both.
    I really don’t like that series, and I really never understood why it became so popular.

    “In the end, I enjoyed the book and recommend it, though with a caution that someone thoroughly familiar with Roman history would enjoy the book more…”
    :) That’s good news for me!

    “and that I will reserve final judgment until the last volume of the series comes out.”
    You said that with the Tom Simon Maker book review as well. How about this: if the rest of the series is as good as this first novel, how would you rate it then? Good, very good, one of the better series you’ve read, etc?

    “To put it bluntly, this is an excellent book, but not one that would have been placed with a large publisher, partly because of its complexity”
    I was not aware they turned away books for being to complex. Weird.

    “and partly because the author’s personal politics”
    lol, yes, I can believe that one. It only works one way though, and Vox would be just that guy to get the axe. Funny, GRRM, Erikson, Prachett, etc seem to be a real lefties but no problems there…

    Thanks for the review Jon, you sold me on it.
    One last question though:
    I have other family members who enjoy fantasy, and I was planning on recommending this book to some of them. I have a cousin who might like it, but he is only 14. Is this an adult ‘adult’ fantasy book? Am I going to get a scolding from his parents (not to mention myself) if I buy him a copy? Fantasy used to be something anyone could read, but not so today. Let me put it this way…did the author draw more than just inspiration from SONG, does it also relish in SONG’s vulgarity/explicit nature?

    1. “Sympathetic villians are not lost on me, though I do enjoy classic evil. One of the reasons Dragon Age: Origins was so good and interesting was that it used both.”

      Agreed. Loghain and Zathrien were good examples.

      “How about this: if the rest of the series is as good as this first novel, how would you rate it then? Good, very good, one of the better series you’ve read, etc?”

      I would say it was one of the better ones I’ve read.

      “I have other family members who enjoy fantasy, and I was planning on recommending this book to some of them. I have a cousin who might like it, but he is only 14. Is this an adult ‘adult’ fantasy book? Am I going to get a scolding from his parents (not to mention myself) if I buy him a copy? Fantasy used to be something anyone could read, but not so today. Let me put it this way…did the author draw more than just inspiration from SONG, does it also relish in SONG’s vulgarity/explicit nature?”

      The violence is pretty explicit, especially when one of the Amorran legions goes up against another. There’s a definite realism to it, in that the legionaries are hard men preparing to kill each other in an orderly fashion, and they proceed to do it. There’s not a great deal of explicit sex – I think the only actual sex scene, if I remember right, is when Corvus comes home to his wife after returning from the legions. But depending on the 14-year-old and the parents involved, they might be offended.

      1. “Agreed. Loghain and Zathrien were good examples.”
        That’s the two I head in mind. :)
        Another thing DA2 lacked in comparison to the original. That and classic evil. I still enjoyed the game of course, but I really hope DA3 captures the magic of the original more than the sequel did.

        “I would say it was one of the better ones I’ve read.”
        Wow! I really need to get my hands on this book!

        “But depending on the 14-year-old and the parents involved, they might be offended.”
        Thanks for the help. I think I’m just going to have to read it first, then decide if he is too young or not, this seems a bit iffy.

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