I shall start by saying flat out that this is a book for fans of Patricia McKillip (like me). Which is to say--this is a book where language and description and things hinted at in the shadows and old histories hanging between characters are of paramount importance, and plot and character motivations aren't spelled out in obvious ways. I loved it.
Bijou lives surrounded by the creatures of her magical artifice--skeletal creatures whose bones she has bound together with jewels. She has grown old in the making of them, and now they fill her house--Hawti the elephant (its trunk given shape by the bones of a boa), the sloth, Lazybones, Lucy the gorilla, and more....But her peaceful labors are disturbed when her former apprentice, Brazen, shows up on her doorstep, bringing with him a strange gift, a child with a badly wounded hand.
"It doesn't talk," Brazen said. "It is a feral child. If you cannot save it, I thought you could use the bones." (page 13).
Bijou, not quite sure of her own motives, takes the child into her pack of strange creatures, and prepares to make for it, of its own amputated bones, a magical jeweled hand....And the child lives, and is named Emeraude, and learns about life lived by people/bone creatures.
Pause in the summary here, to make it clear that the bone and jeweled creatures are lovely magic, not grotesque at all once you get to know them; in fact, rather charming and full of craft, caring and even heroic, and it is rather a lovely change to have an old woman be a great Magical Craftsperson, working with lots of tools etc. The picture of the bone hand on the cover is grotesque and vaguely robotic; it's not like that in the book. So don't be put off. Back to the summary--But the necrotic wound that had sickened the child was no mere chance; it was the work of a necromancer, one whose past is intimately entwined with that of Bijou. As he readies himself to move against Bijou and Brazen, he sets in motion a necromantic plague--all over the city, animals and people begin to fall prey to similar putrefying infections that leave them in a state of hideous un-deadness. And that is all I am going to say.
My summary might make this sound like a Good vs Evil battle-type book, but actually, it is not action-packed (although exciting(!) things happen). It's thoughtful, concerned with interesting characters fully living in their world, with pasts that are gradually unveiled, with complex geographies, histories, and mythologies present in the background. There is no romance. None is needed.
It is rather refreshing, after the heat of the first person immediacy and non-stop action/emotion of the last book I read (Mockingjay), to read a much cooler book, a third-person past-tense book that never lets us entirely into the heads of the central characters, one in which there are spaces for the reader to pause, and wonder, and reflect. That being said, much of the story is told from the present-tense (yet still third-person) perspective of the feral child. This was one of the most interesting, yet problematic, parts of the book for me--although I enjoyed, uncritically, the feral child's point of view, I had to be careful not to pull myself out of the book and start questioning whether a feral child could, in fact, be thinking what Bear said it was.
The book is short, at 131 pages, but the quality of Bear's writing is such that it seems much longer (it reminds me of some of Kelly Link's longer short stories in this regard). Part of me wants to whine for more--more backstory, more future story, more in general, but the mature part of me (small though it is) appreciates that this book is a gem--bone and jewels indeed--and more verbiage is actually not necessary
(although I think a few more words would have helped me personally, because thinking it over as I write this, I am not sure I understand what was motivating the bad guy--he went to a lot of trouble making zombie sparrows etc. and I'm not sure what it did for him. But quite possibly I missed something subtle. After all, I fall firmly into the "I don't understand the ending of Fire and Hemlock" (by Diana Wynne Jones) camp and lots of other readers seem to be able to figure out what happened).
Anyway, this was a really good book and I think I might need to ask for my own copy for Christmas (btw, the publisher still seems to have the book in stock, so do not be alarmed by the high Amazon price).
Age wise: Amazon has it as 9-12. And indeed, there's no sex, or bad language. But it's not a kid's book. The vocabulary, style, pacing, plot, characters etc all say "grown up reader" to me.
This is another book for my multi-ethnic sff list, as Emeraude, the feral child, is brown skinned both in text and on the cover. Although I am not sure I want to include, as an example of a kid of color, a character who is essentially portrayed as a wild animal and whose gender we never learn.