She looks at me. “So what must I do to be safe? Stay here forever?” “I think,” I tell her, “you’ll only be safe if we win our War.” “If we don’t win,” says Unalaq, “it’s over for all of us.” Holly Sykes shuts her eyes, giving us one last chance to vanish and to return to her life as it was at Blithewood Cemetery before a slightly chubby African Canadian psychiatrist strolled into view. Ten seconds later, we’re still here. She sighs and tells Unalaq, “Tea, please. Splash of milk, no sugar.”
– The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks is a fantasy novel about a woman, Holly Sykes, and her interactions with two warring sides, the Horologists and the Anchorites. There is little that I can say about the overall plot without giving some spoilers, so I will continue with that warning. This novel is divided into six sections, each from a different character’s perspective, with only one repetition, and this weaving of stories spans an entire lifetime of mostly normal life, love and loss, births and deaths, with sudden interruptions as these lives cross the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites. The novel is primarily about Holly Sykes, a young woman born in England, who travels extensively in her youth before settling in Ireland to raise her child. Holly Sykes has psychic abilities, and she is aware of a world of magic larger than herself, but for most of her life she is not aware of the scope of that magic or the danger that is brings to herself and her loved ones.
I cannot review this novel without first addressing the structure of its storytelling, because this struck me as drastically different from anything I have read before, and deeply impressive. This is not a novel about a rich magical world. This is a novel about a young woman growing to old age in an ordinary world that is occasionally interrupted by magic. Most of the novel is about Holly’s life – the men that she loves and loses, the child that she raises, the friends that she makes and keeps. Holly cannot do magic, and she does not have extensive knowledge of the Horologists and the Anchorites. However, Holly’s life is deeply affected by this war. It is no surprise to the reader that the disappearance of her eight-year-old brother, Jacko, is caused by this war. A shockingly violent scene in the first chapter is just the tip of the iceberg, but this scene is promptly wiped from Holly’s memory, and she continues on her regularly life without realizing how close she came to her own destruction. The entire novel is scattered with these flashes of magic interrupting otherwise ordinary lives. My personal favorite character, Hugo Lamb, is a young man in university traveling to France with his friends, when his life takes a drastic turn after an interaction with the Anchorites. Crispin Hershey, an aging author, seems to constantly brush against the edges of this magical war, never quite sure what he feels so close to him.
As any summary of the novel will reveal, there is a hefty amount of characters to track throughout the novel. I was quite happy with the development of the primary characters of the book. Holly Sykes is clever, resourceful, and more than anything, willing to accept what crosses her path. She has psychic abilities, and she never gloats or takes them for granted but she also does not attempt to deny them. That attitude was refreshing, compared to other novels in similar genres. Hugo Lamb, my personal favorite, is a bit of a rogue on the edge of serious trouble from his own mischief, but even he seemed well-developed, with a realistic dash of fear of his own consequences. Crispin Hershey starts out rather reprehensible, and has a good deal of thorough character development through his chapters. My only complaint is the development of the Horologists. Their introduction is necessarily delayed by the structure of the novel, but towards the end, I often felt myself grasping to remember who was who. This was true even during the action scenes, when it was quite necessary to remember their identities. I understand the need to have all of the Horologists named, but I feel that there were simply too many names and identities to remember during those most important moments.
It is difficult to discuss the plot of The Bone Clocks without revealing any spoilers, but I want to emphasize how impressed I was with the pacing of this novel. In almost every section, the author gives us two plots to consider: the immediate issue with which the character struggles in his or her life (familial disagreements, a bit of mischief that has gone desperately wrong, a messy divorce looming on the horizon), and the overarching plot, the war between the Horologists and the Anchorites which seems to sneak in and drag the characters through a sudden change in the direction of their lives with little understanding on their part. Even with these vague hints of magic, I never found myself disappointed, only wanting to know more about this world of which we see only glimpses, and I think this was because we are always given a magical scenario, start to finish, even if we don’t always understand the cause of that scenario.
In all, I would rate The Bone Clocks an 8 out of 10. I really enjoyed the structure, but I think it would be most enjoyed by readers that do not limit themselves to genre. Those that read only realistic fiction or only fantasy will likely find themselves struggling through some of the plot. For those that do enjoy a variety of genres, this is an excellent combination of realism and fantasy.