The Map of Bones novel by Francesca Haig
published by Harper Voyager, 2016
Review by Terry Morris
Francesca Haig’s The Map of Bones, is the sequel to The Fire Sermon, a post-apocalyptic novel.
400 years after the earth has been destroyed by fire much of the land is still broken and covered in ash. Humanity survives, barely. A human population remains, and manages to breed. A curious thing has happened, though: Everyone is now born as a twin. One of the twins, known as the Alpha, is healthy and whole, the other, the Omega, is disabled by the poison of the world. Whatever the disability may be, though, the lives of the two are bound together. When one dies, so too, instantly, does the other.
Despite the bond between them, the Alphas treat their Omega siblings badly, branding them and sending them out to scratch a living as best they can in the infertile lands. The Omegas are despised, tithed, or taxed, to starvation, and driven out to worse lands. Given the life-bond between them, this isn’t rational behaviour on the part of the Alphas.
The Fire Sermon takes up this thread, without actually mentioning irrationality, and suggests that most power is held by just a few Alphas who push the anti-Omega agenda, and consider the deaths of any unimportant Alphas who die as a result to be of no consequence.
Not all disabilities are physical, though. A few are seers. They can see the future, presumably, if they can see past the fires that destroyed their world, and if the constant nightmares of those flames don’t drive them mad. A lot of people would view prophecy as a superpower, but the Alphas, being irrational, view it as different and therefore bad. Besides, seers tend to go mad and die young, which is very bad from the Alphas’ point of view, and Omegas are infertile, which proves they are ‘not meant to be.’
The story’s narrator is a seer. Of course her name is Cass.
The Map of Bones takes up, in part, the question of why it is that seers must begin by seeing the past. The answer to that raises yet more questions, and by itself would be enough for a further book of the political, wheels-within-wheels kind. Haig, however, having suggested these questions of politics and morality in both The Fire Sermon and The Map of Bones, takes us instead on a rollicking adventure of the physical kind. In the case of The Map of Bones, after spending considerable time trudging across barren landscapes, hiding from Alpha guards and seeking the remnants of the resistance, there is virtually a dungeon crawl through a long, narrow space.
The adventure part of the book concerns the ways that Alphas can deal with the Omegas, maybe by putting them all in tanks where they can be kept alive but not living, just conscious enough, apparently, that their Alpha counterpart can live without falling unconscious. This is the idea that Cass and her friends primarily resist.
If there is a criticism to be made of the book it is that most of the personality is in the minor characters. Often, when reading tracts of dialogue between the main characters, it is necessary refer back to find out who is speaking. The main characters don’t have particular quirks, lines of argument, or mannerisms that make their speech distinctive. It’s as if Cass is just talking to herself.
Worldbuilding-wise, there’s a lot that, on the whole, doesn’t quite yet feel solid. Presumably further books will reveal the foundation on which it is all set, answering the questions of why there are twins in the first place, why the Alphas hate and fear the Omegas, and why powers of telepathy and prophecy are emerging among them.
Despite the adventure component of the stories, these are books that require patience, and we won’t know until the final book is read whether that patience will have been worth it.