Empire of Bones (Ashtown Burials #3) by N.D. Wilson

Trying to keep up with N.D. Wilson is not easy. I am working my way through Death by Living but decided I couldn’t wait any longer for the latest in the Ashtown Burials series so grabbed Empire of Bones on the Kindle. In the meantime, he has come out with Boys of Blur.  As I said, I am behind.

Anywho, Empire of Bones:

Cyrus and Antigone Smith have thwarted Dr. Phoenix’s plans—for the moment. They’ve uncovered a new threat from the transmortals and managed to escape with their lives. Their next adventure will take them deep into the caves below Ashtown, where they will look for help from those imprisoned in one of Ashtown’s oldest tombs.

I had a weird sense of deja vu as I finished up this book. So I went back and read my review of the second book in the series, The Drowned Vault:

I am a bit torn on this book.  On the one hand, if you read the first book in the series this one further develops the characters and adds in a lot of action.  You get a deeper sense of the conflict and history involved and the mythology of the series.

On the other hand, in classic Wilson style the writing is great but the story is often complex, messy and so layered as to risk confusion.  And at times the action seems at the expense of clarity.

Yep, remarkably similar reaction to the third book.  And like the last book, Kirkus had a critical review:

The book is practically one long battle as the Smiths and their companions use fantastical weapons and powers to save Ashtown and thus the world. Despite attempts at gender equity, Cyrus’ story takes precedence. One newcomer, an Irish monk nicknamed Niffy (his real name is Boniface), is developed enough to become interesting, but few are on stage long enough for readers to get attached, and many characters from previous books are killed. Though not particularly gory, this is full of disturbing images, and the humor that marked the first book is almost completely absent. This middle volume of a planned five is for fans only.

I suppose that last sentence may very well be true, but as Wilson has a great many fans that is not as big of a criticism as it may seem.

And also as with the second book, I think this is a tad harsh.  I think Alissa J. Bach, in School Library Journal gets at why:

 “Ashtown Burials,” with its unique patchwork of history and mythology, effortlessly holds its own among works by such modern fantasy greats as Rick Riordan and J.K. Rowling. Character building is exceptional, and the fast-paced plot will keep readers glued to the pages. A must-have.

First, there is lots of action and a great mix of mythology and fantasy – “unique patchwork of history and mythology” is key here. And many sill find that enjoyable.

Second, Wilson writes dense and lively prose always barreling forward mixing in character development when he can and plot and backstory on occasion. For that reason it can be something of an acquired taste. It is complex, multi-layered, and hyperactive. Those looking for straightforward plot and character development might be frustrated.

But I love Wilson’s imagination and his ability to mix classical myth and archetype, biblical language and symbolism, and his own creative ideas. This makes up for the lack of plot at times and characters without of a lot of depth.  And I do think you have to figure in the young adult genre here as well.

So the style might not be for everyone, and this certainly is not a book you can read without having read the first two, but there is a great deal of imagination, action and stirring writing packed in.  That made it enjoyable for me. Your mileage may vary.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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