Concluding my read-through of Jeff Smith’s delightful Bone series with the final, extra-big volume, Crown of Horns.
After all the complications and mythology Smith has thrown out over the course of the series, he comes to the epic conclusion where a couple Bones, a baby rat creature, and a long lost princess with powers over dreams finally fulfill their collective destinies and save the world.
I have to admit, I like to infuse my writing on things like this with some sort of commentary, but Smith’s series maybe doesn’t lend itself to that sort of stuff. I have no doubts there isn’t some grad student out there finishing up a doctorate on Bone. I used to be someone like that, though I never even started the dissertation, but for the life of me I can’t see how much I can say on this series.
And that’s OK.
This series is just meant to be fun. Smith isn’t making grand statements on society or offering a particularly profound look into the human psyche. He’s telling a colorful fantasy story with well-developed characters that have distinct personalities of their own while still telling a story that’s fairly safe for kids. Yeah, there’s more death as the series progresses, and Phoney has a moment in this last volume where he realizes the sword he’s holding after a skirmish has blood on the tip which he drops in disgust, but this is also a series where a bug with what appears to be a thick Southern accent seems to pop up as needed and a dragon is prominently featured with what look like fuzzy pom poms on the tips of his ears.
So, let’s hit up some major themes and characters and be done with this.
The power of women
Gran’ma Ben, Thorn, and Briar are all fairly strong characters in every sense of the word. Much of the throne of Atheia doesn’t make a lot of sense as monarchies go. Gran’ma Ben was the queen, but so was her daughter, and her granddaughter, but she didn’t die before passing the throne along. Thorn’s father is mostly mentioned in passing, so what his role as king was is unclear at best. Why Briar wasn’t queen as the older sister is also a bit of a mystery. Thorn and Gran’ma both have great strength, Thorn can fly, and Briar is probably the best fighter in the series when she isn’t casting nasty spells.
But really, the plot was driven by the women. Even Thorn’s dead mother has a roll to play, providing key information was beyond the grave that the old dream master himself couldn’t account for.
The other oddity is Atheia seems to get on just fine without its queens, except for when Tarsil was in control.
Some enemies don’t amount to much
Tarsil, the tyrannical stickeater who took over Atheia, for all that his men captured Thorn and the Bone cousins in the previous volumes, doesn’t amount to much. Briar manages to slice him into two pieces were her scythe in about a page and a half after using her own magic to stun Tarsil with his own pre-deformed face.
Likewise, Rockjaw wanders into the field and then…does pretty much nothing. Thorn, Fone, and Bartleby have to sneak past him, but even though he wakes up and sees them, decides to just go back to sleep again. About all he did was provide Smith a few more pages of story.
The two stupid rat creatures probably amount to more as mere comic relief…though they at least finally got their quiche.
Family is important
In the middle of the battle, Gran’ma offers Phoney a chance to escape. He says he won’t leave without his cousins. Gran’ma tells him she was just testing him, though it turns out the escape was still possible and Phoney still didn’t take it. Even when he’s seen fleeing for the tunnel, it turns out he was just going to round up some reinforcements.
Smiley of all people actually stands up to Phoney for this reason. Phoney keeps pushing Fone to decide if he wants to go back to Boneville or not, and Smiley finally tells Phoney that whatever Fone decides, Phoney will support it, so to leave the poor guy alone.
But really, given how tight the cousins are, there really isn’t any surprise what Fone decides.
And the family grew since they returned with Bartleby.
Kingdok confronts Thorn late in the battle at the titular Crown of Horns (actually some kind of large golden crystal thing), and Kingdok makes it clear that he used to be king, but now he’s a slave. He’s lost an arm, most of his tongue, and his dignity thanks to Briar, but still won’t regain it to step aside and let Thorn do what she needs to do.
Briar is an agent for decisions, when you really look at it. She forces the Pawans and the rat creatures to follow her even against their own best interests. I’d always thought what most mainstream superheroes do is protect people’s ability to decide their own destiny. Superman may stop a giant robot, but he won’t topple a dictatorship, even a fictional one. He stands between people who would rob others of their ability to choose their own paths. Villains like Briar, or Voldemort, or Lex Luthor, or whoever, want to make decisions for people, and heroes stand against them for that reason alone. What are the poor folks trapped in ghost circles but people being forced into servitude by the Lord of Locusts? What do they gain back when the ghost circles fall and everyone inside is alive and OK again? Agency.
It is appropriate that the end of the volume, while the last of the story is being wrapped up, focuses on Fone’s decision to stay or go.
Also, the last joke presents Phoney with a choice: pay Smiley one of his last few gold coins or he won’t get a stale bread thingee.
Lucius had betrayed Atheia before due to his love for Briar. Smith never says whether or not Lucius knowingly did this, but many characters hold this against him, and he pays the ultimate price to redeem himself. Lucius is the only major heroic figure to not make it through the story, but he goes out saving Gran’ma Ben.
Phoney may still be greedy by the story’s end, but he still isn’t a coward. He won’t let his cousins die. He has that much going for him.
The valley doesn’t make sense sometimes
Snow falls in instant blizzards. They have Herman Melville, and something that looks like Christmas but isn’t Christmas, and the world looks like a medieval fantasy world. It doesn’t make sense, but that’s probably OK. Maybe we shouldn’t think about it too much.
The end is the beginning
When the series began, three Bone cousins were crossing the desert and discovering the valley after being chased out of Boneville. The series ends with the three, plus Bartleby, riding a hay wagon back to Boneville, still bickering in a familiar way, but now more experienced with the world around them.
Considering the last image is of the new statue dedicated to Fone, with Bartleby and the big red dragon in the craving, the trio made an impact on the lives of all they encountered. And given how much they may still be fundamentally the same, I’m sure they’ll be run out of Boneville again at some point.
But that’s another adventure. Thanks for reading.