by Brett Davis
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the years following the Civil War, two eastern professors, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, fought a private war in the Montana wilderness over the remains of dinosaurs as each man sought to establish his own pre-eminance in the fledgling field of paleontology. Brett Davis has taken this rivalry as the basis for his secret history Bone Wars. However, Davis has added aliens to the mix of paleontologists, Sioux, Crow and ex-U.S. army men who would have actually existed in Montana at the time.
The story is reasonably straight forward and the science fictional elements don't appear until rather late in the book. Marsh and Cope are both trying to discover new fossils and neither is having much luck. Both men make use of a member of Marsh's team, Al Stillson, to spy on the rival paleontologist. Eventually, George Burgess (a.k.a. Siting Lizard), a Sioux with a Yale education, arrives in Marsh's camp to ask about a third paleontologist who seems to be digging in the area. Marsh has never head of this man, who calls himself Swenson from Sweden, and his inquiries into his business lead to the discovery of the aliens.
Although drawn from life, Davis's characters take on very little life of their own, often being portrayed as caricatures rather than actual human beings. Both scientists seem to have more twentieth-century sensabilities than nineteenth-century. Davis does attempt to show Cope's Quaker background, however this only appears during a couple of brief passages when Cope is writing a letter home. Furthermore, Davis's most interesting characters, such as George Burgess, don't get nearly enough page time to fully develop.
Character relationships also don't see much development. Marsh and Cope are both intensely loyal to their hirelings and have none of the sense of class distinction which seems to have been typical of the period. Davis also includes a rather far-fetched romance, however it doesn't grow naturally and seems to be in the book merely because someone told Davis to include a romance.
I mentioned earlier that the plot is somewhat straight-forward. This doesn't mean that Davis doesn't include any surprises. In fact he does. The problem with his plot twists, however, is that far from being telegraphed, they frequently have no foreshadowing at all. The plot twists, therefore, seem like he is changing the rules on the reader rather than presenting a well-plotted story.
While Bone Wars might serve as an entertaining book for those interested in dinosaurs and, more particularly, the history of paleontology in America, I would be more likely to recommend reading one of Robert Sawyer's "Quintaglio" novels or End of an Era rather than Bone Wars. For those looking for stories about Cope and Marsh, there are several non-fiction books which present their exploits in almost a fictional manner.
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