Emma Bull,
Bone Dance
(Ace, 1991)

Emma Bull is one of those writers who seems to be able to take current reality and, with a mere twist of the hand, warp it into something rich, frightening and compelling. As an example of her unusual approach, take Bone Dance, an urban fantasy set in a future dystopia composed of equal parts Bladerunner, seance and Sunday-morning flea market.

Sparrow is an entrepreneur, of sorts. Sparrow, about whom we know almost nothing, is an electronics expert and a black-market dealer in old videotapes and sound recordings. The world in which this takes place is the City (no other name, no particular location, just the City) a few decades after someone pushed the button. The button-pushing and its immediate aftermath are not important, save that those responsible were a group known as the Horsemen, mutated/engineered/modified humans who became a secret weapon in a very dirty undercover war. The Horsemen have one very important ability: they can take over the minds and bodies of others, "moving in" and taking complete control of the actions of their victims. They are not well liked.

The City runs on the Deal -- money is hard or soft, favors figure prominently in dealing, being for all practical considerations a form of cash, and almost anything can be bought or sold. Energy is the critical factor; there is no central government left, and those who control energy on a local basis rule. Information -- especially information from before the Bang -- is subject to seizure and/or destruction, which makes Sparrow's business lucrative, if somewhat risky. Ironically, Sparrow's best customer is A.A. Albrecht, the man who controls the City.

Sparrow haunts the Night Market -- a self-explanatory designation -- and the Underbridge, a dance and video club. Sparrow also suffers from blackouts of varying lengths and comes back to the world with no memories but those of her acquaintances: no one can tell that she's not really there.

Into this mix comes Frances, who is, as it turns out, one of the hated Horsemen; Frances is on her way to kill Tom Worecski, the man responsible for the Bang, who duped Frances and the other Horsemen into participating. Events conspire to draw Sparrow into Frances' search for Tom, and, as is the way with these things, the ripples widen, to draw in Mick Skinner, who has been dead since before he meets Sparrow; Sherrea, Sparrow's closest friend, a talented card reader; Theo, of the Underbridge, who has a very secret relationship with Albrecht; Cassidy, who is creating his own role as victim; and Dana, who has connections, which are sometimes better than hard money.

This is a tight book, very rich, detailed, incorporating elements on the Tarot, Voudon -- Sparrow's blackouts become interspersed with hallucinations involving stick figures who pass on cryptic messages: one is almost certainly Kokopelli, hunchbacked trickster of Southwest Indian lore, who speaks in lines from old movies; another is most likely Oya Iansa, who governs wind and lightning and brings change. The environment is hallucinatory, a feeling only strengthened by the strong presence of elements from Voudon (the parallels between the loas and the Horsemen hardly require explication). Bull's deft touch with descriptions brings a strong visual element to the story: it's a movie set made of broken concrete and lit by neon.

Sparrow is a true anti-hero. In a book full of surprises, one begins to realize that they are surprises because Sparrow, who has an obsession with privacy, is oblivious to the details of others' lives. The privacy fetish itself stems from Sparrow's own history and another surprise, one that has been a carefully guarded secret since the Bang.

Bull is one of those writers who can pull the reader into the story seemingly without effort. Her prose is tight and matter-of-fact, particularly when dealing with the supernatural. The relationship between energy and power is explored on a number of levels, from the practical and political (electricity and its distribution) to the interpersonal (the Horsemen and their victims) to the spiritual (the loas, their devotees and the power of our unconscious). And, as in many works of speculative fiction, there are strong elements of the coming-of-age story: we move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood to maturity, and not all parts of us make the journey at the same rate. Bone Dance illustrates how opening ourselves to the wider world -- to the next stage in our lives -- is often costly and painful but necessary if we are to remain -- or become -- whole.

This is a terrific book.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 5 June 2004

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