S.E. Lindberg rated it: 4 of 5 stars
Fresh, Disturbing Escapism
I am biased toward enjoying provocative fantasy/horror, and Throne of Bones delivers a pleasantly disturbing escape that is too shocking for young adults. The first tale, Ringard and Dendra, admittedly should prove digestible to many. Less so are the next six stories, which are a connected set (the titular Throne of Bones sequence) and should prove weird and jarring even to mature dark fantasy readers (can you say "ghoul erotica"?). Here, the timid and disoriented may want to leave the book unfinished. But hang in there. With each successive story, the connection between characters clarifies as does the "rules" of being a ghoul. All is consistent. And Bizzare. Excellent. The book won a 1997 World Fantasy Award and remains fresh and daring, even now (2012).
Oddly-placed, but well-done, is a stylistic humor reminiscent of that presented in Cohen Brother's movies (i.e. Fargo 1996, Burn After Reading 2008); the situations are so dire and characters so pathetic, that you cannot help but laugh at their choices and predicaments.
I was originally hooked by Alan Rogers introductory comments:
“You hold in your hands a book of stories that forced Brian McNaughton to write. Make no mistake: I don’t exaggerate. There’s a reason this book won the World Fantasy Award. The stories inside it are rich, fascinating stuff—creepy and unsettling and phantasmic. Imagine what Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings would have been like if Tolkien had tried to tell that story sympathetically from the point of view of the human denizens of Mordor and you’ll have the slightest sense of what you’re about to wade into—but only just a sense. These stories will make the same demands on you that they made on Brian: they will command and compel you, and fill you full of terrible wonder. And when you’ve finished them you’ll find yourself wanting more.” —Alan Rodgers
I disagree with the Tolkien call-out since it raises the expectation that the book would resemble Sword & Sorcery or Epic Fantasy (this book fits neither sub-genre). The world is medieval, but there is little military or melee action (however, it is decidedly "dark fantasy"). Otherwise, Rodgers' note is accurate.
Abject People/Artists: Many paint the entire book as being "about ghouls." True the Throne of Bones sequence is ghoul focused, but that comprises only 6 of the 15 tales. More generally, themes explore being an abject person, often with regard to being a misunderstood artist. Many characters are artists and it seems very possible that Brian McNaughton was conveying his own ability to create and enjoy dark art (while not being appreciated by others). Examples:
In the first tale, Ringard, a sculptor, and his painter wife Dendra, struggle to live in a world that shuns their union. The snipet below captures the protagonists ability to see hidden subjects and the ability of his father to not appreciate that skill:
"In every stick I [Ringard] saw hidden shapes, and I became obsessed with revealing them. My father fretted that I meant to ruin him by turning his valuable firewood into whimsies. I perversely maintained that my carvings had more worth than kindling, that they even justified the sacrifice of living trees. Those captive owls and trout were really there. Why would the gods let me see them, if not to set me the challenge of liberating them?" Ringard and DendraThen there was Asterial Vendren, a misunderstood writer of horror fiction:
"I [Asteriel Vendren, writer] seldom give readings anymore. I am sick of women who scream or faint, men who grumble, "Barbarous!" or "Obscene!", sick of the self-righteous show they make of stamping out before I finish. And half of those who remain, of ocurse, will approach me to ask if I really skinned my mistress to preserve her exquisite tattoos, and might they not call on me to examine the artwork?" The Vendren WormAnd ... the body painter Tiphytsorn Glocque (who continually strives to find unique, brilliant ways to decorate skin) laments as he is arrested and brought before a magistrate for being a lunatic:
"How could anyone understand his Art when they couldn't even see it? " The Art of Tiphystorn GlocqueMany more examples pervade the book. Amplifying the artistic themes are a dozen grotesque, full-page paintings from the cover artist, Jamie Oberschlake. Incidentally, he continues to produce disturbing paintings (Link).
No maps or index? I was taken by the promise on the Dust Jacket by publisher Ken Abner (Terminal Fright) that promised that he had a genuine map and promised to published it with additional material at a later date. Sadly, that was claimed in 1997, I cannot find any related sequels for sale, and Brian has passed away in 2004.
JVD: The dust jacket for the book includes an appreciation by the publisher, Ken Abner. He mentions you have a whole chronology and set of maps for Seelura. You didn't want these published with the collection. Abner mentions those items as "crutches." Could you elaborate on why you didn't want the chronology and maps published?Ultimately, a map was not critical to enjoy the book. However, an index would have been much appreciated as the names of people and places proved disorienting. When ghouls begin taking the pace of other people, an index would have helped keep me grounded.
Brian McNaughton: None of that stuff is really finished -- and if it were, I would feel less inclined to write fiction about my imaginary world. A certain sense of discovery is necessary for me. Besides, I feel strongly that the stories should stand on their own. I have to know as much about the world as possible in order to convince the readers that I know what I'm writing about, and that my characters weren't found yesterday under a cabbage leaf. The late Lin Carter deserves our admiration and gratitude for all he did to bring dark fantasy to the attention of the public, but he's the last sort of person I would want messing around with my creations. Maps and chronologies only encourage such people.
Brian McNaughton was a great artist. Read this when you feel like everything in your book queue is derivative, shallow fluff.