Reading it Once, Reviewing it Thrice: A Ferry of Bones & Gold by Hailey Turner

Posted 10th April 2021 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Let's Dig In: Thoughts, Analysis, Essays, Queer Lit, Reviews / 4 Comments

A Ferry of Bones & Gold (Soulbound #1) by Hailey Turner
Representation: Gay MC, M/M or mlm, minor characters of colour
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Urban Fantasy
ISBN: 1726398897
Goodreads
two-stars

When the gods come calling, you don’t get to say no.

Patrick Collins is three years into a career as a special agent for the Supernatural Operations Agency when the gods come calling to collect a soul debt he owes them. An immortal has gone missing in New York City and bodies are showing up in the wake of demon-led ritual killings that Patrick recognizes all too easily from his nightmares.

Unable to walk away, Patrick finds himself once again facing off against mercenary magic users belonging to the Dominion Sect. Standing his ground alone has never been a winning option in Patrick’s experience, but it’s been years since he’s had a partner he could trust.

Looking for allies in all the wrong places, Patrick discovers the Dominion Sect’s next target is the same werewolf the Fates themselves have thrown into his path. Patrick has been inexplicably attracted to the man from their first meeting, but desire has no place in war. That doesn’t stop Patrick from wanting what he shouldn’t have. Jonothon de Vere is gorgeous, dangerous, and nothing but trouble—to the case, to the fight against every hell, and ultimately, to Patrick’s heart and soul.
In the end, all debts must be paid, and Patrick can only do what he does best—cheat death.

A Ferry of Bones & Gold is a 115k word m/m urban fantasy with a gay romantic subplot and a HFN ending.

This book requires me to write three different reviews. If you read and enjoy a lot of urban fantasy, and are familiar and happy with the usual tropes etc, then you should probably read the first. If you are looking for the literary equivalent of a Marvel film, ie, cinematic, action-packed fun that doesn’t ask a lot of the audience, you should probably read the first review. No judgement.

If you’re looking for interesting and well-done worldbuilding, a story that makes sense when you think about it for more than two seconds, or an author who doesn’t lecture you, then you should probably skip down to the second version of my review.

And if you’ve been exposed to KD Edwards’ Tarot Sequence, then just head straight to the Ferry of Bones & Gold vs The Last Sun section at the end.

Review #1

Highlights

~The sexy werewolf has neon eyes
~The gods are jackasses
~Magical FBI
~Vampires are not your friends

Ferry is a fast-paced story with lots of explosions and flashy magic. The prose is light on description and heavy on action, and there’s a sexy semi-romance plotline woven throughout the main storyline. Ferry doesn’t require any heavy lifting on the part of the reader; if you want something that’s fairly light, if you’re not up to dealing with something super complicated and just want to have some brainless fun, then this is pretty perfect. I started reading while full of anxiety in a doctor’s office, and Ferry sucked me in and made the time pass in a blink, when I wasn’t able to concentrate on any of my usual reads (all of which demand a lot more attention). That’s some major points in its favour.

It has a very generic urban fantasy feel, but that’s not a con if you’re a fan of the genre and the common tropes. As long as you’re comfortable not dissecting the worldbuilding, and happy to just be swept along by the story, Ferry of Bones & Gold is a perfectly fun way to spend an afternoon or two.

Review #2

Highlights

~No
~No
~No
~Kill it with fire

What in the actual fuck did I just read, and how much brain-bleach do I need to scrub all memory of it from my consciousness???

It’s been a while since I read action-y urban fantasy, and Ferry of Bones & Gold is the perfect reminder of why the fuck I avoid it. Let’s break it down, shall we?

We’ll start with the main character, Patrick, who is a red-headed mass of cliches and toxic masculinity. The only thing that makes him stand out from legions of other angsty ~heroes~ is that he’s gay and has no hang-ups about the fact that he likes to be fucked. Cool, yay. I require more than that from my main characters, Karen. Like maybe…one single shred of personality that is not angst or manly pain. Patrick is macho and badass and prefers drinking to talking about his feelings. He curses. He went through literal hell during his time in the magic military, but the only thing that’s really left him with are scars on his magic that supposedly cut him off from most of his old power and make it painful to work major magics. I say ‘supposedly’ because we never once see Patrick have to think outside the box or use his power in an economic, strategic way to save his strength: whenever something comes up, he throws power at it and pulls off whatever it is he’s trying to do. The scars are something for him to angst about, but don’t seem to actually slow him down or place any real limitations on his capabilities, even though we are constantly reminded that he isn’t the mage he used to be.

And that’s thing number 2: the telling-not-showing. Ferry is a semi-constant stream of clunky info-dumps, and I’m not sure if it’s because Turner thinks her readers are too stupid to keep up, or if she’s just too bad a writer to integrate the information into the narrative more smoothly. I don’t need or want four paragraphs on the history of the werewolf virus, and if you’re so excited about your worldbuilding that you want to show it off, find a way to make it a natural part of the story.

But if you’re going to lecture me, at least tell me things that make sense. The worldbuilding here is a lot of superficially cool concepts stuck together with craft glue: it all falls apart the second you poke at it. For example: magic is fueled by your soul. Souls exist! They empirically exist! But this has not affected people’s views of death, the afterlife, or religion in any visible way. Nor is it clear what effects, if any, drawing from your soul has on your soul; oh, a magic-user will get tired, and feel pain if they draw too much, but…does this have any affect on your sense of self? Your ability to make it to an afterlife, if there is one? If souls empirically exist you need to explain to me what they are, and Turner most certainly does not do that. Also, why do magic users make a ball of glowy light and filter their spells through that??? How does that ‘focus’ anything? What???

Way, way worse is the entire concept of the Immortals, beings who live on the other side of the Veil and who were, or maybe are, gods. They are divine, but their ‘godhead’ can be separated from them. They draw power from being worshiped, but they are still fundamentally immortal and therefore not really dependent on human worship. But even though more worship, and therefore more power, would be cool, the gods are living on the down-low rather than the limelight. They haven’t made themselves into celebrities, which you’d think would be a good way to utilise the modern world if you wanted worship. They just…drift in and out, pop in to be mysterious and sometimes threatening, and can never do The Thing themselves because…Reasons.

That all aside from the fact that Ferry decided to build a story around the Greek gods, which is so fucking done and tired, and ignore all the myths ever to cast Hades as one of the bad guys. Because he’s a god of death, I guess, and death is scary and bad and evil. Despite the fact that there are…literally no myths of him being a bad guy, other than, arguably, the abduction of Persephone. Zeus is the major, major dick in the myths, but in Ferry he’s the one in need – and deserving of – rescue.

Also, the Big Bad, who is working to strip the godhead out of a god so he can become a god himself? Is being helped. By. Other gods.

…Someone please sit me down and explain to me why any pantheon would ever help humans figure out how to steal their divinity. Surely the stupidest of stupid gods could see that that is not going to end well???

And when you’re done, go tell Turner that dramatically revealing completely new mysteries with no warning and then solving them three pages later is not Good Writing. Don’t drop huge, game-changing revelations on me unless you’ve been building up to it throughout the book. Urgh, there is so much here that is just because Drama, or just because Plot, or just to give the characters a moment to show how badass they are. There are quips and one-liners that don’t make any fucking sense, but they sound cool, right? And there is so much dick-waving. Too many of the major characters are the worst kind of Alpha Males, with all the posturing and swearing and threatening to prove that they’re the baddest in the room.

And please do not get me started on the love interest Jono. He of the Neon Blue Eyes and Nice Ass. He’s actually not a dickhead, and his chemistry with Patrick was one of the only things that felt genuine in this book – there are good reasons the two of them are thrown/forced together, and everyone is very clear on the difference between physical attraction and falling in love, so I’m good with all of that. But he’s supposedly an ex-Londoner, and, just.

I grew up in London. That is not how anyone speaks. Turner sprinkles in awkward Briticisms throughout Jono’s dialogue and internal monologue, and it’s terrible. Please make it stop.

Nothing makes sense. Jono is constantly referred to as an alpha werewolf, but he doesn’t have a pack, so I have no idea what that means. (If I find out that Turner’s werecreatures are divided up into alphas/betas/omegas like Teen Wolf or something, I will scream.) Random gold coins, because reasons! Let’s rescue the hero by pulling him into an underworld, where time moves differently so he loses a vital 24 hours because There Wasn’t Enough Plot To Fill Those Hours, I Guess! Let’s not tell the agent you sent into the field who you’re sending him as backup, because it makes for a more dramatic reveal that way, right? Feel free to use military slang that I as a civilian have never come across before, and don’t bother to explain it, even though your context doesn’t come close to giving me a clue (the first time the term ‘sitrep’ comes up, I thought it must be some kind of painkiller. Spoiler: it isn’t!) Etc, etc.

You know the concept of hate-sex? By the halfway mark, this was rage-reading. I just wanted to be finished with it and done.

And the worst part is acknowledging that Ferry of Bones & Gold is not a bad example of its kind. Info-dumps aside, it’s very readable. The pace moves along. It’s very typical urban fantasy, with all that entails. I can see why it has so many positive ratings; I can see why a lot of people enjoy it. I do wonder if it would piss me off as much if I hadn’t read the Tarot Sequence by KD Edwards and Ferry was recommended to me on the basis of me liking the Tarot Sequence. As if the two could ever compare.

It’s not just the Tarot Sequence, though. Everything that Ferry of Bones & Gold does, I have seen done so much better by other writers and other stories. I might have enjoyed this book a decade ago, although the poor worldbuilding would still have bothered me, but it wouldn’t have made me angry. Reading it in 2021 made me angry. I’ve read better, and I deserve better. We all do.

So thanks, but no fucking thanks.

Ferry of Bones & Gold vs The Last Sun

Highlights

~Rune > Patrick
~Addam > Jono
~New Atlantis > this trainwreck
~Brand > everybody

Various algorithms and fellow readers alike recommended Ferry of Bones & Gold to me on the basis that I love The Tarot Sequence by KD Edwards. So from the moment I opened up Ferry, I was comparing the two. Maybe if I hadn’t been, I would have enjoyed Ferry a bit more.

I can see why the algorithms recommended it: Ferry and The Last Sun both utilise a fair number of the same tropes. Both have (male) main characters who are queer with complicated and fucked-up pasts. Both have relatively simplistic magic-systems. Both have a ‘police case’ plot which unfolds into something bigger and nastier. Patrick (Ferry) and Rune (The Last Sun) are both extremely badass, but both have to bow their heads to bigger super-powered characters. Both get a male love-interest.

The difference is that Ferry of Bones & Gold is pyrite – fool’s gold – and The Last Sun is 24-carats of the good stuff.

Rune and Patrick are both magically handicapped; Rune because he only has a handful of sigils, meaning he only has five or six spells available at any time, and Patrick because he can’t draw on the amount of power he once could. But over and over again, we get to see Rune thinking outside of the box, utilising the spells he has in unconventional ways to achieve the desired effect; he chooses the spells that go into his sigils extremely carefully, strategically, to have as versatile a selection as possible. He routinely uses less-powerful spells in smart ways that make them as if not more effective than more powerful ones – like choosing a camouflage spell instead of an invisibility one, or levitation over flight. Patrick, on the other hand, never seems hindered by his supposed limitations: whenever he needs to throw power at something, he does so, and manages just fine. We never see him going for brains over brawn when it comes to his magic, or being strategic or economic with his power. The end result is that his ‘scars’ have no effect on the plot at all; if they do anything, it’s only make Patrick look like a complete fucking idiot, since he’d rather suffer pain than be smart with his magic. It doesn’t make me sympathetic, or impressed, as I felt for Rune; I ended up just wanting to slap Patrick upside the back of his head for always being so full of idiotic macho bullshit.

Rune is completely lacking in toxic masculinity, which is incredibly refreshing and makes for a much more interesting and likable character. He knows his limits and works within them; he doesn’t need everyone in the room to acknowledge him as the biggest badass in it, and doesn’t feel threatened when he’s in the presence of a bigger badass. Patrick, on the other hand, spends most of Ferry throwing his weight around, establishing dominance over most of those he comes into contact with. Some of this is because he’s FBI and many of the other characters are either civilians or from local law enforcement, so he does outrank them; but despite the multiple references made to the need for diplomacy, it doesn’t actually show in his dialogue or actions. And far from making his peace with the dynamics between himself and the gods he has to interact with, he’s a mass of anger, hate, and resentment. I think it’s all justified, but it makes for a very different reading experience. We also get repeated references to the fact that Patrick doesn’t talk to his therapist properly, keeping things from him, and is extremely closed-off emotionally; whereas Rune is emotionally close to and open with the people around him, not pretending to be okay when he isn’t and unafraid of asking for help or support.

Which brings me to the Found Family trope. It makes sense that Patrick isn’t especially close to most of the characters in Ferry; he’s known most of them for less than a week. But we’re told, repeatedly, that he misses his team from his military days…and yet when some of them make an appearance in the second half of the book, the dynamics between them feel more like a business relationship than anything else. It couldn’t be more different to the relationship Rune has with Brand, his Companion, a role which embodies best friend, bodyguard, and (non-romantic) partner. And although both Patrick and Rune have past trauma that could make connecting to new people difficult, Rune is at least carefully open to the idea, and does form important bonds with people new to him in The Last Sun. The Found Family doesn’t completely coalesce until book two, The Hanged Man, but it’s very much developing in The Last Sun, and the equivalent just isn’t there in Ferry.

But you don’t have to embrace the Found Family trope to have a decent cast of secondary characters. You can have interesting, fully-fleshed-out characters who don’t become siblings-without-blood with your main character. And yet, wherever characters like those might be, it isn’t in Ferry. Despite being an incredibly powerful and ostensibly important seer, Marek’s personality seems to consist entirely of ignoring Patrick’s requests to stay safe, and none of the other characters stand out for more than a couple of seconds, better characterised by their species or abilities than their personalities. They blur together in a way that’s frankly embarrassing. Even characters who don’t have names in The Last Sun – like the bartender who spikes Max’s drink – have more personality, more motivation, are just more real than the cardboard cut-outs that stand-in for characters in Ferry.

That. Is. Embarrassing.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Patrick is a loner – there’s a ‘lone wolf’ joke in there somewhere, but I’m too tired to find it – which means there’s no one but him to focus our interest on. Brand, Rune’s Companion in The Last Sun, is objectively one of the best things about the Tarot Sequence, but there’s no equivalent partner character in Ferry. There’s no one for Patrick to play off of, no contrast, no break from his constant and unmitigated angst. And that was a choice Turner made in writing the story the way she did.

The romances just…can’t be compared. Although I appreciate that Ferry makes it clear that Patrick and Jono are not in love with each other – they haven’t known each other long enough – after hooking up, both start to have Feelings. The issue is that…I have no idea what they’re based on. Chemistry, sure, I get that; they’re physically attractive to each other, fine. But given that neither character displays any personality, I don’t know where the Feelings are coming from. By the end of the book, the major emotion Patrick seems to feel for Jono – other than attraction, if that’s an emotion – is guilt. Whereas Rune and Addam, in The Last Sun, both give each other plenty of reasons to appreciate the other as a person – Addam’s optimism and determination to be good, Rune’s selflessness and honour and his unconventional (in his culture) views on privilege and responsibility. Etc. But the blandness of the secondary characters of Ferry extends even to the gods-damned love interest, and I just – how am I supposed to care about any of these characters?

And so much of this – if not all of it – is a writing choice, and that’s the final bullet in the chamber. Reading The Last Sun, I had the wonderful sensation of knowing I was reading the work of someone as smart or smarter than I was. Usually, when I snatch at a shiny new piece of worldbuilding like the manic magpie that I am, it crumples like a sweet wrapper. It doesn’t hold up. Whereas with The Last Sun, Edwards has gotten there ahead of me; any inference I draw from a piece of worldbuilding is already worked in; any implication has already been followed through on. I think I’ve already made it clear that Ferry is nothing like that; Turner has introduced various ideas and concepts, but hasn’t followed any of them to their logical conclusions. Edwards’ worldbuilding recognises that every new item introduced has ripple effects, altering many other aspects of the fictional world; changing the lines on the map. Turner has cut out pretty pictures and used craft glue to stick them onto a map of our world, as if introducing magic or gods doesn’t change the whole shape of literally everything.

Reading Ferry is like picking up a box wrapped in shiny paper, and finding that beneath the paper, the box is empty. Reading The Last Sun is like picking up a Fabergé egg; not only is it gorgeous on the outside, when you open it up, there’s just more treasure for the reader to delight in.

It goes beyond worldbuilding: Turner is constantly lecturing the reader, explaining things we don’t need to know in unreasonable, confusing amounts of detail. Whereas Edwards expects the reader to be smart enough to keep up…or to enjoy the surprise when the pieces come together. Reading Ferry felt like listening to someone talk to me as though I were five years old and needed everything laid out in single-syllable words; there is no putting the puzzle together on your own, because the pieces are being thrown at you, hard, in the face. And even if you try, you don’t have all the pieces, because big, important reveals happen at the last second with nothing leading up to them. Meaning there’s no way to enjoy the surprise, either, because it feels a lot more like whiplash.

I could go on: I wrote five pages of notes on how badly Ferry fails when held up against The Last Sun (both of which came out in 2018, by the way, so it’s not even as though Ferry has the excuse of simply aging badly). But there’s only so long even I can rant about a book without feeling Tired.

The simple fact of the matter is that The Last Sun raised the bar for urban fantasy, and while I don’t know if there are any other books that can meet that bar? Ferry of Bones & Gold most definitely does not.

:I edited this review after publishing it to cut a metaphor that was unintentionally condescending. My genuine apologies for my fuck-up.:

two-stars

4 responses to “Reading it Once, Reviewing it Thrice: A Ferry of Bones & Gold by Hailey Turner

  1. Oof, so I’m not picking it up, is what I’m reading here. I think I would be in the same boat as you in terms of comparing Ferry to the Tarot Sequence, not to mention I have a difficult times with angst-ridden, domineering lead characters. An excellent review, btw, and i like how you broke it up into different sections! May the next book you read be more enjoyable!

  2. Matty

    I’m a fan of both of these books and this review just pissed me off. I understand some things are not for some people, I hate All for the Game, other people love it. That’s great and if you can defend your position even better, but the moment you start being condescending your opinions fly out the fucking window along with my respect.

    At multiple points in this review you call the author “Karen” which is, in case you were unaware, an insult. You can critique someone’s work without name calling. Then there’s the chocolate analogy. Do you realize how insulting it is to say to someone, “it’s ok you just don’t know any better”? Especially when regarding something like fucking candy. My poor trailer park ass will enjoy my Hershey’s and you can eat your Finnish chocolate.

    Of course I can’t forget the cake topper: ” I had the wonderful sensation of knowing I was reading the work of someone as smart or smarter than I was.” KD is wonderful and amazing, but I don’t know how he’d feel having you use praise for him as an insult to another author. Maybe reevaluate how you approached this review.

    • I used ‘Karen’ once and it was not directed at the author, but at a hypothetical stand-in I’m having a conversation with.

      The chocolate comment is patronising. I didn’t mean to insult anyone, but I think I did and I should have phrased it better. But I did say, repeatedly, ‘no judgement’. I acknowledge that McDonald’s is junkfood, but I’ll still pick it every time over some fancy restaurant because I prefer the junkfood. While acknowledging that by technical standards, the fancy steak or whatever is ‘better’. A trashy romance is trashy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t love it more than some Great Literary Novel, or that there’s anything bad or wrong or whatever with liking it more. I think I fucked up by implying that only idiots would prefer the equivalent of American chocolate, which, I’m sorry, I phrased that badly, I’ll need to sit down and edit the review to fix that. My point is/was that Ferry isn’t a great book. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, which is why I included Review #1. Books don’t have to be great, it’s enough if they bring a reader joy. And people who like different things from me may well enjoy Ferry.

      And if you disagree that Ferry is not a great book, then, fine. I said my piece, and we have different tastes. It happens quite a lot.

      I think most people who aren’t arrogant would be uncomfortable at being held up as better than someone else, which is why I didn’t tag KD to draw his attention to this. But I’m not going to apologise for saying that, imo, he’s the better writer, or lie about how it felt to read his books. Or how it felt to read Ferry. The experience sucked and the book made me angry. That’s what I wrote.

      Thank you for pointing out my fuck-up, I’ll work on edits tomorrow.

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