Author: Emily Lloyd Jones
Publication date: September 24, 2019
Genre: young adult, fantasy, light horror
My rating: 4.5/5 stars
THIS BOOK HAS A ZOMBIE GOAT. If that isn’t enough to convince you it’s worth reading, well…I don’t know what is. But here are a few more things this delightful book has to offer:
- A kickass, axe-wielding gravedigger girl
- A small town plagued by a curse
- A quiet, mapmaking boy with chronic shoulder pain (omg relatable)
- Dark forests, abandoned castles, and legendary monsters
- Witty banter alongside profound moments
- Did I mention the freaking amazing ZOMBIE GOAT???
This was one of those books that sounded good when I saw it all over various bookish social media platforms, but I hadn’t really prioritized reading it. Boy howdy, am I glad I decided to give it a shot, because, while it did have some small rough spots, as a whole it was an enjoyable read with a small dash of spookiness.
First off, a disambiguation: this book really isn’t horror. Yes, it has zombies, but it isn’t written in a way meant to scare; its focus is more on breaking a curse, dealing with loss, and fighting a corrupt noble. Aside from the descriptions of decaying bodies, which are a little creepy/gross but not very scary, it probably isn’t going to freak you out. If you’re afraid it’ll be too scary, don’t worry; if you’re looking for some good old-fashioned fear, this might not be the best place to get it.
Now, on to the review, starting with a quick synopsis!
Aderyn (“Ryn”) has a lot on her plate. Her parents are dead, she lives with her siblings, and they’re behind on rent because they can’t pay off their missing uncle’s gambling debts. Her job as the town’s gravedigger might be a good source of income, were it not for the fact that lately, the dead aren’t staying buried, instead coming back as zombie-like creatures known as bone houses, which has superstitious townsfolk opting for cremation instead. Enter Ellis, a quiet mapmaker of vaguely noble background, who is trying to map the area around Ryn’s village–both for glory and for personal reasons. When the threat from the bone houses reaches an unprecedented level, Ryn and Ellis team up to try and find a mythical city, hidden in the mountains, where the magic that keeps bringing the dead back to life supposedly resides. Yes, they’re an odd team–but they might be just the right team to break this curse and lay the dead to rest once and for all.
The first major perk of this book for me was how fast of a read it was. The pacing was quick, the writing was accessible, and even the printing was nice (not jammed too closely together on the page). I was able to tear through it easily in a matter of days, without feeling like it had actually taken much time. The action was constant; the slower moments were long enough to provide a break for the reader but not so long that they were boring. Honestly, the pace throughout was probably one of this book’s greatest strengths–and makes this an ideal book for when you’re bored at home while social distancing.
This speed was aided by the fact that the whole world was immersive and enjoyable to read. Steeped in Welsh mythology, the bone houses are far from the only magical things in this world, which also has fun things like pwca (ghost/fairy/forest creature things) and sea monsters. There is a recurring line of thought about the corruption of men, the consequences of when humans stopped trusting the fair folk, and how out of touch the nobility are with the dire state of small towns like Ryn’s, all of which helped create an intoxicating blend of whimsy and darkness that filled this dark fairytale.
The characters, of course, were a lot of fun. Ryn is a badass who hacks through bone houses with her trusty axe like it’s no big deal, who goes into the supposedly-haunted forest without fear, and who will do anything to help her family–even if that means leading a stranger through an abandoned mine and into the mountains on a quest that has killed anyone else who has attempted it. Her siblings, though only minor characters, have their own personalities; I was a big fan of Ceri, the youngest, who loves baking and her pet goat but also is the master of deadpan sarcasm.
As a perfect complement to Ryn, Ellis is sensitive but no less of a badass. He lives with chronic pain in his left shoulder, supposedly from an injury as a child that was never set right, but he rarely complains and always finds a way to fight through the pain, no matter how bad it is. He’s clever and loves the details and rules of mapmaking, and even though he occupies an odd spot socially, he still has aspirations of becoming something greater than his current station. Plus, I absolutely love his constant banter with Ryn; the two of them are quite funny together.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, once again, how much I love Goat. No, the goat doesn’t really have a name beyond “the goat,” and there is a reason for that (Ryn’s logic resembles a quote from a wonderful Pixar movie: “Once you name it, you start getting attached to it!”), but this weirdly loyal zombie goat, smelly and rotting and ferocious and stubborn, is most certainly the best part of this book. No amount of argument will convince me otherwise.
Though some elements of the plot were predictable–a certain small town that Ryn and Ellis come across early on was painfully obvious in its “secret,” and two big reveals near the end did not shock me nearly as much as I think they were supposed to–that didn’t bother me too much, because the author was still able to wring emotional value from them without being overwrought. The use of zombies to make the dead a physical presence–and to signify the persistence of family ties, even after death–allowed for a fresh exploration of different forms that grief can take and added deeper resonance to this story.
I’ll even forgive the little bit of romance this story had, because (a) there wasn’t much, so it didn’t overwhelm the plot, and (b) it was mostly about learning to trust someone and care about someone even when you’ve had so much taken away from you, and I kind of liked that angle.
All things considered, I found The Bone Houses to be a highly worthwhile read. It will keep you turning the pages, it will make you smile even as you squirm at all the bones and rotting matter, and it will most likely leave you a little happier than you were when you picked it up.