Category Archives: coming of age

Haunted by the Bone Tree

The Bone Tree
Christopher Fulbright
Bad Moon Books
trade paper, 99 p, $17.95
ebook, $3.99 Kindle Nook 

This novella, short though it is, is one of the best ghost stories I’ve read in quite a while.  It’s also a good coming of age story.   Set in a small town south of Dallas in 1978, it’s the story of two friends, one white, one black, who discover that there are worse things hunting in the night than the difficulties they face by day.

Kevin, the narrator, is best friends with Bobby.  This is a good thing, although it’s not always easy.  Bobby’s skin is the wrong color in this small town, and to make matters worse, his father died a few years ago.  Bobby’s mother struggles to make ends meet.

The boys find solace in their tree house, which looks down on a creek.  One afternoon, while sharing comics, they see a younger boy, Tommy, being chased down the creek.  What’s chasing him is something out of a nightmare.  At least that’s what Tommy claims.  They decide to walk Tommy home, past the old cemetery and around a white, dead tree they call the bone tree.  On the way home, they discover that Tommy was not only telling the truth, but that he didn’t know the whole truth.

Kevin and Bobby learn that no good deed goes unpunished, but Kevin grows to realize that just because that’s true doesn’t mean you should back down in the face of evil, whether that evil is a racist bully or something far worse from the other side of the grave.

Fulbright has been steadily building a body of work in the horror and dark fantasy fields for a number of years now.  I should also mention in the interests of full disclosure that he and his wife Angeline Hawkes (author of Out of the Garden, reviewed here) have been friends of mine for a number of years. I’m not giving him a good review because he’s my friend, however.  This book is that good.

In addition to having some genuinely creepy chills, such as when Bobby hears a tapping at his window and his dead father’s voice calls to him, there are moments that are truly moving, like when Kevin’s father tells him he did the right thing by standing up and fighting a bully.

Fulbright captures the time and place perfectly.  I was about the same age as Kevin in 1978, living in north Texas and attending a racially divided school, and there were places in the story where the writing took me back.  In fact there was only one fault I could find.  Kevin mentions watching Battlestar Galactica after having gone to school earlier in the day.  This threw me out of the story a bit because Battlestar Galactica aired on Sunday nights.  (Don’t ask how I remember this.)

The Bone Tree is a perfect Halloween story.  The price for the trade paperback is a little steep, but the ebook is a bargain.  It can be yours in seconds with just a few clicks.  This one I highly recommend.

A Nerve-Wracking Journey Across the Mountains

The Whitefire Crossing
Courtney Schafer
Nightshade Books
Trade pbk, $14.99, ebook $5.99, 300 p.

In the acknowledgements to this first novel, the author states that the first draft of the book was written during NaNoWriMo 2007.  That’s encouraging because I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and I can only hope to write something half this good.

This is a dark, at times disturbing, adventure story with villains who are deliciously evil, yet have believable motivations.  The heroes are young, flawed, make mistakes, grow, and learn about themselves and the world.

The suspense is intense at times, and the passage across the mountains, especially after the blood mage attacks, is downright nerve wracking.

The story opens in the country (city state?, kingdom?, the political structure isn’t clear) of Ninavel, a haven for mages.  There is no restriction on the type of magic a mage can practice in Ninavel.  All are allowed, including blood mages, whose magic requires human sacrifice.  The neighboring kingdom is Alathia, where just the opposite situation exists.  Magic is strictly proscribed, and only government sanctioned (and controlled) mages are allowed to practice, and then only in the service of the country.  Most forms of magic are illegal and practitioners strictly punished.  This is especially true of blood mages.  Neither is a place I would particularly want to live, for totally different reasons.

The story opens when Dev, a young smuggler, is told by the man who gives him his commissions that on his next trip into Alathia he’ll be smuggling in a young man named Kerin, who is trying to escape from some of the local banking houses due to certain poor financial decisions.  Dev is suspicious but needs the money.  He promised his dying mentor he would buy the man’s daughter from the crime lord who owns her before she changes.  It seems a common trait among children in Ninavel is the Taint, which is basically telekinesis.  Slavery is commonplace, and there are a number of crime rings which use children as thieves.  The Taint goes away at puberty, and the children are sold to whoever wants them, no questions asked.  Dev was a slave to the same crime lord until he changed.  When this girl changes, she’ll be sold to a brothel with a really nasty reputation.  Dev is doing everything possible to raise money so he can to buy her first.  And so he takes a job against his better judgment.

Dev is right to be wary.  Kiran isn’t running from a banking house.  He’s running from a blood mage, one he happens to be indentured to.  Kiran has no stomach for the torture and murder that are a part of being a blood mage.  Did I mention most mages in Ninavel regard those without magical ability to be little more than animals?  This is especially true of blood mages, who tend to be possessive, vindictive, and ruthless.

Kiran and Dev travel with the first caravan over the mountains.  Dev is a regular guide on these treks, and Kiran is posing as his apprentice.  It doesn’t take long before trouble follows after them.  They don’t trust each other, but soon they have to flee the caravan and depend on each other for survival.  Dev is one of the most experienced guides around, but he can’t fight magic.  Even if they make it across the mountains and pass the border crossing, their troubles will be far from over.  Just being in Alathia is enough to earn Kiran a death sentence.

Courtney Schafer is a rock climber, a passionate one.  It shows in her writing.  She brings the passage across the mountains alive.  The suspense, not just from the pursuit of the villains, but from trying to survive against the elements, gets intense.  Maybe I’d had too much coffee and not enough food, but I found that whole segment of the book to be one of the most nerve wracking things I’d read in quite a while.

This book has some serious themes running through it.  Betrayal, conflicting commitments, situations in which there are no choices that won’t leave innocent people dead.  Both Dev and Kiran have to learn about trust.  Both have to decide what kind of man they want to be and then pay the (excruciatingly high) price to be that type of man.  In many ways, this novel is a coming of age story, albeit a grim and bloody one.

I recommend it highly and am eagerly waiting for the sequel.