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The Bone House
Luanne Armstrong
New Star Books, 277 pages

The Bone House
Luanne Armstrong
Luanne Armstrong lives and writes from the interior of British Columbia. She teaches Creative Writing at the College of the Rockies. She also farms, rides horses, and walks through mountains.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

As The Bone House opens, 18-year-old Lia is living a harsh, perilous existence as a street kid in the slums of mid-21st-century Vancouver. After her friend, Star, leaves the city in search of a legendary "Kind Place," Lia decides to follow. If she can't find Star, at least she can return to her grandmother's abandoned house near the town of Appleby (in an area that's presumably the Kootenays).

Meanwhile, in Appleby, a former logger named Matt is living rough in a shack in the woods. Crippled in a skidder accident, Matt is more than half crazy, and he's haunted by visions of the house he wants to build.

"He saw a wall, a monument of bones, wide and tall and high. No, not a wall, but a house made of bones, white and shining, bones made useful, made solid, made as a mark, a monument to waste and stupidity and death and the living wild creatures all around him."
This image embodies Luanne Armstrong's dystopic future BC, where a few wealthy families live in luxury while the majority struggle for survival. Hospitals, schools, and even the police have been privatized, and the corporations running them have downgraded services, cutting off small communities and the poor. Environmental degradation and global warming are disrupting agriculture and industry, and the worldwide crisis has made our forest and water resources ever more of a target for ruthless international corporations.

It's a stark but very credible background, and Luanne Armstrong, a Vancouver writer, paints it well. She is skilled at handling characters and their dialogue, particularly the confused and delusional Matt, who often frightens people without intending to. Armstrong also paints the wilderness landscape with loving care, although her prose is sometimes hampered by passive constructions and the overuse of sentences starting with "there was."

Unfortunately, after a punchy start, The Bone House grinds almost to a stop. Armstrong's characters dig weeds, chop wood, worry about the future, and hold tedious, improbable conversations about what went wrong with the world. One incident after another demonstrates how bad things can get without ambulances or schools, but fails to move the story forward. And Matt spends chapter after chapter wandering aimlessly through the landscape as he slides ever deeper into psychosis.

The science fictional elements are weak, too. Armstrong tosses in a few dubious bits of technology (hydrogen fuel cells that are radioactive?!) but her future Kootenays are firmly in the 70s. There are no cell phones, satellite uplinks, debit cards, biotech, or tools more advanced than a chain saw, and although everybody talks about computers, nobody seems to own or use one. (Her organic farming commune isn't logged into sustainable growth networks, and their technology seems more medieval than Green.)

Armstrong also tells too much of her story, rather than showing it. For instance, we're told that too much water is being diverted to the U.S., but we aren't shown the effects of that on daily life. And -- most seriously -- she doesn't seem to have any solutions. While she posits that the sell off of public services and resources is a long term disaster, no one in the book tries to do anything to reverse it. Characters even state that it's not possible escape society's problems by hiding out in the backwoods, but that's exactly what they do.

Finally, in a little rush of action at the end, villains are dispatched with ridiculous ease and all the grim social/political/environmental problems are dismissed with a bit of vague authorial hand-waving.

I find it hard to identify to whom The Bone House will appeal. Lia is a believable teenager, but kids are likely to be bored by all the gloomy lectures and the lack of action. Regular SF readers will find the story unrewarding. And Armstrong's prose doesn't have the convoluted artifice to attract the literati.

Lia, Matt and the rest are helplessly caught up in the chaos of their deteriorating world -- realistic, perhaps, but it leaves The Bone House without direction or momentum.

Copyright © 2003 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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