March 09, 2021

Sarah Beth Durst

Death is only the beginning

In a genre filled with sprawling sagas, Sarah Beth Durst has been delighting readers with meticulously crafted, breathtakingly creative standalone fantasies.

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In a genre filled with sprawling sagas, Sarah Beth Durst has been delighting readers with meticulously crafted, breathtakingly creative standalone fantasies. Her previous novel, Race the Sands, took place in a world where the wicked were reincarnated into terrifying beasts who competed in dangerous races. In The Bone Maker, Durst furthers her fascination with the porous boundary between life and death by creating a world marked by resurrection, the ghosts of the past and a magic system that allows people to see the future, give life to constructs and create talismans through bones.

The magic system you use here is so simple and elegant. What sorts of choices did you make when coming up with the rules of how bone magic works? How did the idea first come to you?
I had this image in my head of a silver-haired woman in a faded blue leather coat. She reaches into her pocket and . . . "What?" I asked myself. "What's in her pocket?" And my brain immediately answered, "Bones."

Not sure what this says about my brain, but that's the moment The Bone Maker was born.

I love to create magic systems with specific, clear rules. Everything that happens—and everything about the society, the history and the culture of the world—spills out as a consequence of those rules. To be clear, you don't necessarily have to have a fully defined magic system in a fantasy world, but I think that the world feels more real if the magic functions logically and consistently.

For my bone magic, I decided there were three different kinds of bone workers: bone makers, who use bones to animate inanimate objects; bone wizards, who imbue bones with specific powers such as strength or stealth; and bone readers, who use bones to tell the future.

"Even in the darkest times, people find a way—they need to find a way—to laugh."

All stories rely on a character's past to inform and shape the present of the book, and that feels particularly true here. Was it easier or more challenging to write these characters' stories after you formulated such rich backstories?
In order for me to write any character, they need to feel real to me. And real means having a backstory. We all have backstories. You, me, Darth Vader, everyone. So I believe it's not that it's easier or harder to write a character with a rich backstory; it's necessary.

It was especially essential with The Bone Maker, because this is a book about what happens after. It's set 25 years after the Heroes of Vos defeated a corrupt magician and his inhuman army made of animated bones. The heroes think their story is over. But it's emphatically not.

On a slightly related sidenote . . . I've always secretly wished it were socially acceptable to walk up to a stranger and say, "Tell me your story. How did you get to be who you are?" I love people's backstories!

This book frequently bounces between humor and solemnity. How did you control and balance the tone as you went back and forth?
I am deeply suspicious of any story that doesn't have humor. It's such a basic human coping mechanism. Even in the darkest times, people find a way—they need to find a way—to laugh.

All the humor in my epic fantasies arises from the characters. I control the tone by trying to be as true to the character as possible. If I think a character's most honest reaction to a particular situation would be to scream, then they scream. If I think they'd cope with snark, then snark it is! I think it was Ursula K. Le Guin who said that fantasy isn't real, but it's true. The more true you are to your characters, the more real your story will feel.

A lot has been said about how history repeats itself and we're doomed to relive our mistakes over and over. Does that idea ring true for you when you think about Kreya and the gang?
I . . . don't think so, actually. If it's only those who cannot remember the past who are doomed to repeat it, then Kreya and her team can't suffer that fate. None of them can forget the past. Especially Kreya. Her husband died years ago, and she's willing to cross any number of lines to bring him back.

I found myself thinking about regret while reading this book. These people have lost a lot over the course of their lives and in some cases, it heavily impacted who they are. Was that a planned decision or a happy accident? Which character's arc came together most easily?
It was a planned decision. I knew from the start that I wanted to write a book about second chances, and I sculpted the characters to be people in need of a second chance in one way or another. I wanted them to be bearing the wounds and scars of what came before and to explore how that would impact their ability to cope with an epic adventure.

As Zera says, "You know, the last time we saved the world, you people didn't have so many issues." I think Zera's arc was the one that came together the most easily. At the start of the novel, she's chosen a shallow life. By the end . . . I don't want to give any spoilers, so I'll just say I really, really loved writing her!

All fantasy worlds are filled with magical beasts and strange contraptions. Care to share any of your favorite creations that fill Vos?
I love creating creatures! I knew from the start that I wanted a slew of deadly creatures in the valley between the mountains—the people of Vos live in cities built high on the sides of the mountains because the mist-shrouded valley is deadly. Loved creating my crocoraptors and the venomous stone fish.

If I had to choose, though, I think my favorite creations in The Bone Maker are Kreya's rag dolls. She animates them with bones so that they can assist her in her tower. They're thoroughly creepy. So fun to write.

When you think back to writing this book, are there passages that you remember writing more vividly than others?
Loved writing every interaction between Kreya and Zera. They mock each other quite a bit and also truly care about each other—they're best friends who haven't seen each other in 25 years, didn't part on good terms and need to find their way back into each other's lives.

I also loved writing every scene where a character demonstrates strength—I adore writing about characters who have to rise to meet a near-impossible challenge. I believe that fantasy is a literature of empowerment. Nearly all my books are, on some level, about characters who must discover or rediscover their own power. And in this case, a lot of bone magic.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bone Maker.

Is the ability to resurrect someone who is dead a question of morality? If you could do what Kreya did after reading Elkor's forbidden journals, would you?
In The Bone Maker, there's a cost to bringing someone back from the dead: one day of your life for every day they live. The kicker is that you don't know how many days you have left to spare. Only the magic knows.

I think the would-you-should-you depends on who died, how, when and what their wishes were. It's certainly not a power to be used lightly, and I don't think there's any easy or right answer.

Would you rather be a bone reader, a bone wizard or a bone maker?
I've spent way more time thinking about this than I probably should have! I don't think I'd like to be a bone reader—the power to predict the future is, frankly, too much responsibility. It shattered Marso. Bone maker is tempting. I love Kreya's contraptions: the bird skeleton, the ragdolls, the crawler. (A reader called my book "bonepunk," and I adore that term.) But I think I'd choose bone wizard. Make the right talisman, and incredible powers can be yours!

Very curious to hear what other people would choose . . .

Get the Book

The Bone Maker

The Bone Maker

By Sarah Beth Durst
Harper Voyager
ISBN 9780062888631

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