Beastly Bones: A Jackaby Novel

  • By William Ritter
  • Algonquin Books
  • 304 pp.

This second-in-a-series story shines almost as brightly as the first.

Ritter’s follow-up to 2014’s critically acclaimed Jackaby lacks some of the quixotic zest of the author’s first novel, but it’s still an enjoyable young-adult read. Beastly Bones maintains the enigma, sly social commentary, and dynamic plot of Jackaby, but occasionally feels like a slightly less-driven effort — the author may be suffering from the dreaded Second Novel Syndrome, curable only by writing a third.

Beastly Bones takes the reader from late-19th-century New Fiddleham, the setting of Jackaby, and into the wilds of Gad’s Valley, where the discovery of a new fossil has the town abuzz, and so does the tragic death of a farmer’s wife at the site of the find.

The services of intrepid paranormal-investigator R.F. Jackaby are needed, along with those of his capable assistant, Abigail — who conveniently has a background in paleontology. Readers are treated to shapeshifting kittens, mysterious creatures, a lovable trapper, and the return of Charlie, the policeman with a secret from Jackaby.

Secrets are a recurring theme in the series, but particularly in this text — Jackaby himself is a mysterious figure who reveals little of his personal life and maintains an evasive persona. Though he shares his home with Abigail, she knows little about him as a person.

Likewise, Jenny, the ghost who haunts their home, is equally secretive about her life, even as she acts as mentor, friendly face, and mother to the household. At times, these secrets feel contrived, as it’s a narrative device common in YA fiction. While mysteries and tangles of lies can create a fascinating story, they can also become grating if not deployed with discretion.

The rich textural descriptions of Jackaby are alive and well here, placing the reader firmly in the environment of the story and painting the scenery in broad strokes with just enough detail to create a sense of intimacy. Ritter is skilled at bringing the reader into a world by showing it through the eyes of the characters, rather than taking a distant, descriptive approach.

Narrated by Abigail in the form of a diary of her adventures, Beastly Bones provides us with insight into her thoughts on the case without betraying a precocious knowledge of how other characters might be processing the scenes around them.

However, some of the sense of magic from Jackaby is absent here — there is nothing on par with the earlier novel’s delightful (and physically impossible) third-floor indoor garden, for example, and there’s something of a hard edge to this entry in the series.

While the YA category is full of books designed to mature with its readers, there’s a distinct lack of whimsy in it. Such whimsy helped make Jackaby so appealing, as that novel managed to retain a sense of fun without feeling saccharine. It should be possible to keep that feeling alive without turning jaded readers off. Here, much of that balance comes from Abigail, who describes the fantastical scenery in front of her with a sense of wonder while retaining her keen scientific instincts.

Throughout the series, characters misjudge her — writing her off as valueless because of her gender — yet she constantly defies their expectations. She’s a proto women’s rights activist without feeling anachronistic, a woman who knows her own value and isn’t afraid to proclaim it.

In Beastly Bones, we meet a like-minded woman in the form of journalist Nelly Fuller, a fictional version of women like Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Bell, who made their mark in the world as they traveled alone and wrote in an era when such activity bordered on scandalous. Her name is a clear hat-tip to the legendary Nellie Bly, the 19th-century writer who pioneered investigative journalism. Fuller has sharp advice (gleaned from experience) for Abigail, empowering her to define her own life as she balances her work with Jackaby with her desire to be independent.

This independence is exemplified in her unwillingness to be led by romance, another common theme in young-adult fiction, where it seems nearly impossible to find a book without a dominant romantic plot.

Abigail’s relationship with Jackaby, however, is one of professional friendship, akin to a Holmes/Watson dynamic and a refreshing change from narratives where the lines between investigator and assistant become blurred. While she has a romantic interest in Charlie, it doesn’t overshadow the story, and it’s clear that she has no intention of subverting her identity or her career because of it.

Readers can expect more of Ritter’s crisp, descriptive prose and fully realized characters in Beastly Bones, which builds upon the world created in Jackaby without leaving newbies to the series at sea.

It’s a solid second effort and shows the potential for considerable artistic development. Should Ritter push himself, he could become the craftsman behind some beloved series in the YA canon, one whose sense of fun is accomplished without snark, self-deprecation, or wryness.

s.e. smith is a writer, editor, and agitator based in Northern California with international credits in publications like the Sydney Herald-Sun, the Guardian, Bitch Magazine, Salon, RH Reality Check, and In These Times. In addition to acting as a contributing editor at xoJane, smith will be co-chairing Wiscon, the world’s leading feminist science-fiction convention, in 2016.

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