The Bone Shaker by Edward Cox
Publisher – NewCon Press
Published – Out Now
Price – Kindle £3.75 Paperback £7.49
In the heart of the Great Forest, nothing is as it should be. Sir Vladisal and her Knights of Boska are lost and far from home. The son of their Duchess has been kidnapped, spirited away to a nameless place within these dark and endless woodlands. Vladisal is his only hope, but an evil has come to the Great Forest, an evil that is corrupting the trees with demons born from ancient magic.
If Vladisal is to save her Duchess’ son, if he and the women of Boska are live through the horrors of the Great Forest, then she must place her trust in Abildan the assassin. But Abildan hails from an age-old enemy, and she once served the very evil they all must fight to survive.
The quest is one of the classic plots in fantasy. It can be to find the fleece or the grail; to rescue the stolen lover/defeat your historic enemies (delete as applicable) or destroy that pesky ring but I think the best types though are not aimlessly walking around the various lands just to meet up in book five (ahem) but instead those where the quest shapes those on it. It allows for a very literal hero’s journey and they’re rarely the same afterwards. In this highly entertaining novella Edward Cox presents a tale of daring knights, magical lands and scheming evil and yet balances it with a more modern approach to character and morality.
We are quickly plunged into the action as we find the Knights of Boska awaiting a signal in the woods. A running child is found chased by a tree demon (and they hunt in packs….). They are a deliciously nasty concept of a flesh-eating vine ridden corpse that the slightest touch will make you one of them. After a brutal battle we realise the Knights aren’t just ridding the forest of this force they’re hunting its creator – the witch Dun-Wyrd who has kidnapped the son of their noble Duchess. Sir Vladisal was his sworn protector and will stop at nothing to get him back. This includes making an uneasy alliance with one of the feliwyrd – a group of magical assassins who are humans crossed with mountain cats. This member of the group Abildan is herself on a mission to stop Dun-Wyrd and this rare truce between the two is not getting warm approval from Vlad’s troops. In the background of the bravest warriors Redheart is tracing a magical signal that may provide back-up from one of the oldest and most mysterious races in the land…or may bring about their doom.
In some ways you can feel an almost traditional edge to the story. Knights versus an evil witch to rescue a child is one of the classics and it is delivered here very engagingly. The thrilling opening scene quickly gets you to see the Knights in action both in terms of their prowess with bows, swords and hammers but also start to get to know the leads better. Vlad is clearly the leader but bound by her word of honour to both her Duchess and her truce with Abildan that makes her on occasion inflexible and just as likely to get her into difficult situation. I also liked the older seasoned veteran Uban who has seen Vlad and the others grow into their roles over the years and acts as a sort of sergeant/counsellor to the wider team providing advice and morale. Into this mix is Abildan who balances the heroes with a more ambivalent edge to her character in being quite unlikeable (yet often right); extremely useful and with just a hint of balanced fairness, this means you’re not sure either what she will do next or if her overall agenda is that noble.
At this point with the depiction of Adilban you start to see the more modern influences within the story that Cox is weaving. Beyond just the simple but oh so important statement that you can just have a band of women who just also happen to be competent, intelligent and fierce. We see the Knights the heroes aren’t all honour and blind obedience theyre quite human with friendships sand families. Most are untrusting of Abildan and Vlad’s impatience risks her team on occasion; with Adilban in the background it raises the question of how far you can trust someone you’re trained to fight. Honour as we find can be just as much a trap as a demonic hideout in the forest.
I also really enjoyed the telling of a tale. For a novella there is a measured release of back story to understand the world the Knights operate in. There are hints of a larger tale going on with the greater Wyrd forces being shown to have mystical fortune-telling prophecies and a desire to create the perfect timeline for their conquest and in the woods the more magical people that live within have little love for humans either. The end neatly sews all these threads together into a well-paced and tense battle with high stakes where the Knights have to dig deep to survive the odds.
I’ve been a fan of Cox since I started reading his Relic Guild trilogy (another refreshing fantasy take I thoroughly recommend to those seeking something a bit different). This feels a refreshing sword and sorcery adventure that I really hope is a world he revisits in the future as it does feel there could be a few more tales to tell. If you enjoy the work of Jen Williams, then I think this tale would really be a great adventure to go on.