Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Book Review: A Throne of Bones

It’s no secret that of all the authors nominated for a Hugo this year, this was the one I most wanted to read again after plowing through several books. The novellas in the The Last Witchking were that compelling and everything I expected to find in a novel length treatment of the same subject matter is here in A Throne of Bones. As before, things start off a bit slow, but as before I eventually got stupidly invested in each of the characters. There are several different plot threads going at once and each one ends up taking unexpected turns before folding in upon each of the others. Everything logically proceeds from what comes before, and yet some of the developments are absolutely stunning. It’s a good read.

To understand the significance of this book, though, I refer you to  Steve Jackson’s author’s note in the first edition of GURPS Fantasy:

Fantasy writers (of both books and games) often take the safe way out, by providing superficial mumbo-jumbo in place of religion. Frankly, I find this unsatisfying, if not actually obnoxious. Many role players seem to agree; given the chance, they would rather be paladins of a “real” faith than of the Temple of Gooble the Mostly Omnipotent.

Therefore — with the hope that I do not offend greatly — I have presented three of Earth’s major faiths, by name, as they might have developed in a world where magic was real. These depictions come largely from history, partially from the favorite stereotypes of fantasy literature, and lastly from my own imagination!

Given the emphasis on realism above everything else at that time, this passage always struck me as a huge rebuke to the D&D scene of the day. I don’t think I was ever fully on board with the ridicule of “Marge the Barbarian” snark from the Basic Set, but there actually is something to what Steve is saying here. At least, these words were haunting enough that I simply could not get excited about all the weirdo variant cleric classic of Second Edition AD&D when that edition rolled around. And yet, as influential as Steve Jackson’s Yrth was on my teenager brain, I have to say that I was completely unprepared to run a game set in a world with that kind detail. It was just too daunting. I was just some kid and I knew absolutely nothing about what it would take to run real world religions in the context of a game.

That’s where A Throne of Bones comes in. The setting of this novel could have served just as easily as the default campaign setting of the original GURPS Fantasy, although it arguably is closer in spirit to Roma Arcana from the Fourth Edition incarnation of that title. The world building approach is very similar in each case. Heck, the combat sequences read like GURPS tactical combats with Douglas Cole‘s Last Gasp. (Though for the mass combat sequences, it is Commands & Colors: Ancients all the way!)

One faction presented here is an anti-magic and Roman Republic with each major noble house independently running their own legions. They are thoroughly and unflinchingly Christian. Another faction is a french-speaking and magic weilding monarchy. (One of the main characters is a battle mage from there that is unapologetically irreligious.) Yet another faction is the Viking-like Reavers invoking Thor and Odin in their oaths. The elves of this setting have a bit of an edge to them that is refreshing and one of their greatest sorcerers has converted to the faith even as the church has recognized that elves have souls. And there’s also the inevitable dwarves, orcs, goblins, and werewolves rounding things out.

I think this is all laid out in such a way that a game master can easily pick it up and run with it, but the thing that takes the cake here are the detailed depictions of how legions really work. If you saw the opening bits of Gladiator and wished that the movie could have stayed focused on such battles for the entire film, then you will derive a lot of enjoyment from this book.

So yeah, this is an epic story in a solid fantasy setting. But let me tell you why you might not want to read it. The use of a Christian culture as a backdrop may get tedious for some people after a while. Granted, a lot of the Catholic type stuff is no more distracting than, say, a detailed description of an exorcism from a horror movie. But characters that are literally crying out to God when they are in their most desperate moments is going to be more than some people can take. Probably the most likely thing to turn people off is a bit early on where we find out that the elves do not believe in evolution. I don’t think this was handled as well as the theological discussions of Opera Vita Aeterna and I can imagine some people throwing their ereader against the wall at that point. Still, the author does not belabor these sorts of scenes, however, and the intense action of the later chapters would (in my opinion) more than make up for whatever cringe this might induce. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

This book is quite enjoyable by itself, but if you are running any sort of game with a city state that is at all based on the Romans, then this book is an essential find. This is not at all like the derivative fantasy series of the eighties that I grew up with. There’s a realness to it that I don’t recall seeing before. My favorite thing about is that it really takes you inside the head of men that are responsible for leading armies. I simply did not know how much I wanted to read something like that until I got this book! I don’t want to give anything away, but there is some really good stuff in here that is as inspiring as it is entertaining. There are difficult lessons on leadership here that are nowhere to be found in stuff like the more visible Honor Harrington series.

This is a nice change of pace after assuming that I’d always have to hold my nose if I was going to read any of the more recent science fiction and fantasy. While this is not entirely family friendly, it is still not nearly as graphic as, say, the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones. While it doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, it also clearly sets up the next book so beware of that. The Roman names can get confusing and the Latin terms can get a little much at times, but really, the biggest problem I had with it was that pretty much had to take a sick day in order to finish reading it once I got about half way through.

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