‘The Bone Houses’ by Emily Lloyd-Jones is an enjoyable, if conventional, YA fantasy novel, set against the intriguing backdrop of Welsh mythology. The writing flows, the characters are engaging, and whilst this doesn’t win many points for originality, it executes the staples of the genre with aplomb.
Seventeen-year-old Ryn is desperaely trying to hold together her family, and her family’s prized business: gravedigging for her remote village’s graveyard. Both are in dire straits. Since the disappearance of her father and uncle, Ryn has been the sole breadwinner – but her uncle left debts, and there aren’t enough deaths to make a living gravedigging. There’s also the small matter of the dead in Colbren refusing to stay dead.
Enter Ellis: an apprentice mapmaker with a mysterious past. Claiming to want to more accurately map Colbren, his arrival coincides with an uptick in the risen dead, or Bone Houses – forcing Ryn into a difficult position. What will she risk to save her family and town – and perhaps stop the Bone Houses for good?
The story alernates between Ryn and Ellis’s perspectives, although Ryn feels like the primary protagonist. Strong-willed, impulsive, and with a huge heart, Ryn closely resembles many other YA protagonists – but that doesn’t make her any less easy to connect to. She’s frustrated – at her situation, her age, the politics of the village, and even her family – but she cares deeply, and everything comes from a good place.
Ellis is kept more of a mystery. A mapmaker raised in luxury as part of the Prince’s household, he’s treated with suspicion by Ryn and the residents of Colbren, who don’t believe he’s there simply to make maps. He’s too well dressed and spoken to blend in – but even the local aristocrat sees an intruder rather than a kindred spirit. Ellis is inquisitive but quiet, and his connection to the reader is slower, his story taking time to unfold. However, his softness works as a contrast to Ryn’s obvious strength – and it becomes increasingly clear he’s strong in his own way.
One of the strongest aspects of this book is its depiction of chronic pain, a condition Ellis lives with. There’s no use of magic to minimise it and no attempt to define him by it – it is simply there, always in the background and regularly affecting how much he can do. It’s unusual to see pain as something which limits characters in fantasy rather than something they fight through, and the difference is refreshing.
The plot is traditional: once the characters and incentives are introduced, it proceeds to a quest-type story with various hurdles along the way. Naturally, there’s a romantic subplot woven in, and this is slow-burn and well handled, complimenting rather than distracting from the main arc. There’s also an animal companion, a goat, which is always a fun addition to a fantasy. The plot springs up few surprises but is enjoyable, easy to follow, and creates a slightly sinister but never unduly scary atmosphere. Whilst this is a YA novel with a seventeen year old protagonist, this could easily be read by younger readers, including middle-grade aged readers advanced for their age.
The Welsh mythology inspiration is one of the few unique elements, and this is intriguing. I’m not familiar with the source material so can’t speak to its accuracy, but it makes a pleasing change from the more common Greek or Nordic origins. The tales are woven into the narrative well, with each of Ryn and Ellis having heard slightly different versions, highlighting the discrepancies intrinsic to oral storytelling tradition.
Overall, ‘The Bone Houses’ deviates little from the standard tropes of the YA fantasy genre, but it executes them well, and wins extra points for its positive disability representation and unusual source material. A recommended read for all YA fantasy fans.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Paperback: 15th October 2020
Hardback: 31st October 2019