Bookshops & Bonedust by Travis Baldree

Legends & Lattes showed the end of the adventuring career of Viv, an orc barbarian who decided she had had enough of treasure hunts and dungeon crawls. Bookshops & Bonedust shows how her first adventure very nearly became her last, and how the times in between quests can be every bit as important as the fights that make up most epic tales.

Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree

Viv is new with the mercenary troops called Rackam’s Ravens, and she is feeling her strength in battle against the undead raised by Varine the Pale. “Old warhorses, the lot of them. Old and slow. They’d tried to keep the new blood in the back, but that wasn’t what she was built for.” (pp. 1–2) Her kill count was nearing twenty, and she was far out in front of the main Raven line. “And then her leg lit up with a cold fire that turned hot in half a second. She staggered and pivoted on the other foot just as a pike’s rusty head withdrew from a long wound in her thigh. … Then the blood came. A lot of it.” (p. 2) Fortunately, some of her fellow Ravens caught up with her before the wights make Bookshops & Bonedust an extremely short book.

Doubly fortunately for Viv, Rackam has an enlightened view about the fighting talent that he hires. Though the unit will continue north to pursue Varine the necromancer, they will pay for Viv’s needs while she recovers in a nearby seaside town, and if she’s healed up enough when they pass that way again, they will take her back on. Viv starts to object, and Rackam cuts her off.

“It’s done, kid. You survived a stupid mistake today. If you want to make another so soon after, well…” His gaze was hard. “Want me to tell you the odds I give on that?”
But Viv wasn’t a stupid orc, so she shut the hells up.

And so she washes up in Murk, jewel of the western coast, as an innkeeper tells her when she regains consciousness and mobility a couple of days later. But is she washed up after just one outing? Baldree does a terrific job of showing a younger Viv, someone who knows her strength and thinks that limitations happen to other people. The near-fatal wound in the prologue is just the beginning of Viv learning, really learning, that she can’t do it all, and that other people can be more than they seem. And learning to extend her view of what qualifies as people, too.

None of this is to say that Bookshops & Bonedust is especially deep, or intricately constructed, or situated in a richly imagined, finely crafted world. The book is charming fun in a typical fantasy setting. “Jewel of the west coast” is about the extent of the worldbuilding, and that’s just fine. Baldree is not out to push the boundaries of the genre; he’s here to create characters that readers care about, to get those characters into scrapes, and to show how they grow and develop both to get out of the trouble that they have landed in and as a result of their actions. He succeeds admirably in all of those tasks, and Bookshops & Bonedust is a better book than Legends & Lattes without losing any of the fun or charm.

While Viv is still just barely mobile, she finds rest and refuge in a bookshop that has definitely seen better days. The proprietor inherited it from her father, she’s not drawing many customers, and she wonders why she is doing it at all. But she has the bookseller’s calling of matching a customer with just the right book, and over the course of Viv’s convalescence she converts her from a reluctant reader into someone who can’t wait for the next installment of a favorite series. For her part, Viv helps to breathe new life into the shop, from repairs to reorganization, and not a little personal pep talk for the dejected owner.

Of course the bookshop is just half of the title. Varine the necromancer lurks on the novel’s horizon, and a mysterious stranger shows up in Murk, someone who instantly raises Viv’s hackles. A series of odd incidents leads to Viv and the group that she has slowly gathered about herself discovering that some of Varine’s property has made its way to Murk. The most interesting item is a homunculus of bones, usually confined to a leather bag — thus his name, Satchel — powered by bonedust. He is not keen to be returned to the Lady’s service, but he cannot undo the bindings on his own. With signs gathering that Varine may bring her undead army to Murk to recover her lost belongings, it’s up to Viv and her friends to alert the city and to stave off death magic with the limited resources they have at hand. Bookshops & Bonedust brings adventure into a quiet setting, but the real delight was seeing the characters discover more about themselves.

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