There’s a lot I’m not sure about when it comes to The Bone Fire, by György Dragomán (translated by Paul Olchvary). I’m not entirely sure where or when it’s set. There are mentions of a recently assassinated dictator and a secret police force called the Securitate that had me thinking this story was set in Romania in the early 1990s, but I can’t confirm this. There are frequent mentions of folk magic, but some of the things the main character and her grandmother do can mostly be explained away by coincidence or luck. It even took me a while to figure out what the main character’s name even was (Emma). While this book might be short on the usual details, it is long on episodes in Emma’s strange life as an orphan and (possible) witch’s apprentice.
We first meet Emma on the day, at the orphanage, when she is surprised to learn that she has a living grandmother. Emma had believed that she had no family after her parents died and it takes Grandmother some work to convince Emma of their relationship. Strange things start to happen immediately after they leave the orphanage. Grandmother’s purse seems to be some kind of magical guard dog and promises are made with fresh blood. While the odd things keep happening, Emma also has to settle into a new life in the city, at a school where everyone believes that her recently deceased grandfather was an informer.
I think the events of The Bone Fire take place over about a year, from shortly after the old regime was overthrown, through a winter, and into what seems to be a new revolution against kleptocrats who took over from the old guard. The meandering plot bounces between Emma’s magical lessons with her grandmother, to teenage milestones like getting one’s period and buying a first bikini, to increasing violent events around the city. It’s a lot to absorb. To be honest, I’m surprised that this book clocks in at under 400 pages because it felt like a lot more.
Readers who are looking for a more traditional fantasy novel, where a chosen one defeats a big evil, should look elsewhere. The Bone Fires actually reminded me more of Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy (although it doesn’t have anything like Fillory) because it’s the story of a girl with magical abilities (maybe) who has to get along in an ordinary world. It’s a deep character dive. It’s also a long look at survivors’ guilt, betrayal, secrets, and compromise. And, running through the whole thing, is the hope that potions and rituals can influence the mundane, making life just a little bit wilder.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.