Game Write is a recurring series dedicated to the fiction of game industry veterans. From the best-selling titles of Drew Karpyshyn and Austin Grossman, to the obscure classics of Jane Jensen and Sheldon Pacotti, this series hopes to unearth both the gems and the trash we tend to leave buried in the credits. In this entry, we review Anthony Huso’s Bone Radio, a thrilling, if undercooked, post-apocalyptic adventure within the New Union: A country not too dissimilar from our present U.S., but built on the ashes of remnant cities and borrowed technology.
The world of Bone Radio is its best asset: Anthony Huso has turned away from his steampunk and fantasy beginnings into a more grounded setting in the Pacific Northwest. Bone Radio is set, presumably, hundreds, if not thousands, of years after the fall of our civilization. The world of the New Union isn’t in shambles, however, and the post-apocalyptic setting doesn’t reflect an apocalypse too strongly. Most of humanity has been rebuilt off the work of future archaeologists and academics, and the existing government lies somewhere between our modern day and the fractured world of the Fallout game series.
Huso’s world feels real and mysterious, and I found myself genuinely drawn into the New Union’s structure and the surviving institutions. That the world wasn’t buried in traditional post-apocalyptic tropes, but instead turned them on their head, worked in its favor. The rest of the novel, unfortunately, suffers from problematic editing, some rough writing, and poor characterization.
The story’s set-up is somewhat convoluted, and perhaps betrays the sense of cognitive dissonance underlying the plot. Marshall Dei arrives at his family’s cliffside mansion to find his brother, Vercingetorix Dei, sprawled on the floor and near death. Marshall, a tattoo artist by trade, also works as his brother’s caretaker, and needs to regularly feed a living tattoo that swims over Getorix’s body. Without this care, his brother could be devoured from the inside out.
Getorix once held the title of President of the New Union, and was the nation’s most successful leader, bringing an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity before retiring. It’s his devouring tattoo — a gift from a mythologized tribe he lived with long before — that gives him this unnatural prescience. Marshall carries a fraction of this power, with a ‘bone radio’ of the title installed by Getorix in his teeth: He occasionally hears ghostly songs with lyrics and rhythms serving as metaphorical warnings of his and his friends’ possible futures.
The present New Union administration’s a failure, and hungers for the powers they see the Dei family as hoarding. The main plot is pushed forward by a conspiracy of government officials aiming to betray the Dei family and gain control of their assets; their hope is that a physical object at or near the Dei House would be the source of Getorix Dei’s successful leadership.
Bone Radio was exciting, but not well-written. The first fifteen pages are among the most turgid, and it took me a while to ground myself in what exactly was going on. Metaphors and similes were strained to the limits of readability, and multiple adjectives would adorn every other word.* Once the setting of the Dei House was established, it was much easier to get lost in the New Union’s intrigue: That humanity hadn’t failed a la McCarthy’s the Road (2006), but was flourishing again, building colleges and technological industries, reminded me of Riddley Walker (1980) in some respects. The writing and editing issues occasionally drew me out, but the family’s quests amid this future were fascinating enough to draw me in until the end.
Besides the often-clunky writing, the characterization of the heroes and villains falls flat. Marshall Dei is not an interesting hero: He’s more a Mary Sue defined by ‘badass’ stereotypes. He’s huge, muscular, masculine beyond comprehension, brilliant, infinitely-attractive, and a mysterious loner. His decisions that drive the narrative are completely illogical, betraying his supposed intelligence.† Piper, the story’s love interest, is a shallow sex fantasy: A beautiful, naive 25-year-old who falls for the hyper-masculine Marshall Dei twice her age. She transitions from loathing Marshall to obsessive love in about 24 hours. She then continually rewards Marshall in some disturbing scenes where she’s in excruciating pain and near death, but feels the absurd desire to have sex with the man responsible for putting her in that position.‡ Their relationship never helps the narrative, and I genuinely didn’t understand why it was written into the story at all. These two personalities don’t gel, and their romance wasn’t feel natural or interesting — just absurd.
Other characters don’t fare much better: The villains, Lynn and Forster,§ are just gross caricatures of casual misogyny, identical personalities who think only of taking advantage of the people — especially the women — around them. The mythological tribe that may or may not exist is defined exclusively by outdated, flat noble savage tropes. Marshall’s nephew, Wesley, is dragged through the dirt by the narrative and ultimately murdered with no redemption or character development. He’s portrayed as a chubby loser undeserving of Piper’s love — they’re dating before she falls for Marshall –, and his own father even seems to knowingly forego saving Wesley’s life. Wesley’s betrayed by his entire family (seemingly for no reason other than his being a loser), stews in that betrayal for a while, and then dies horribly. It’s later revealed that he could have been saved, but evidently no one cared.
All of this makes Bone Radio an odd story. The characters and plot feel like an outline of ideas and stereotypes that need to be fleshed out, yet the world Huso wrote is fascinating despite that. The problems pile up so high, that it’s hard not to explain them without getting frustrated by the novel’s failure to meet its potential. It’s still a fun yarn, but it ultimately reads like a first draft in need of many revisions.
Bone Radio is available as an affordable e-book via Amazon.
Besides self-publishing Bone Radio, Anthony Huso has published a series of two fantasy-steampunk novels with Tor Books: The Last Page (2010) and Black Bottle (2012). In 2012, he also self-published a novella, Box of Devotions, as a connecting interlude between his two greater novels. As a level designer in the video game industry, Huso’s contributed primarily to Arkane’s studio in Austin, Texas, helping design Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (2006), KarmaStar (2009), Dishonored (2012), and the upcoming Prey (2017). He’s also contributed to the development of Call of Duty: World at War (2008) and Boom Blox Bash Party (2009).
* Occasionally the turgidity leaned on accidental humor, and I’ve collected favorite passages below. These indicate lines most in need of editing.
Below the windows, delirious rocks gushed with foam. [Loc. 118]
Great ferns browned near the windows like a path of desiccated jungle and Getorix’s favorite trophy, the impossible proboscidean head, fully six feet across with its cranial glass eyes, glowered down from the enormity of the far wall. White tribal markings embedded in the creature’s preserved brow almost glowed in the gloom.
Under the blue light of evening the macabre yellow of four opposing tusks formed a diffuse threat. They interlocked ominously, more like claws than teeth, pointing generally downward — several feet downward — under a palpable hungering thrust, toward the gleaming hardwood floor, where Marshall at last discerned the terrible sprawl of his brother. [Loc. 125]
Marshall tilted his head to the side slowly until his neck snapped like a dry stick. [Loc. 493]
At least until the protests ended, move in at Dei House — try to get Getorix’s ink spells under control. [Loc. 520]
When she saw him she stood up and smiled like a carnivorous plant. [Loc. 564]
Then it was bang and double bang, one of which slit the vinyl on the tattoo chair and caused the foam to puff like popcorn. [Loc. 713]
It was hello, hello, you’ve had a bad day and let’s get a look at you. [Loc. 804]
Marshall offered a smile like piano wire. [Loc. 1136]
Lynn touched his right eyebrow as if he’d forgotten something, but he hadn’t. It was just a mannerism. [Loc. 1289]
His wrinkle patterns exploded from the corners of both eyes like fireworks, and dissipated down the sides of his cheeks. [Loc. 1289]
Suddenly Marshall’s voice poured like gravel into her ear. [Loc. 1417]
The fragrance prompted him to reach down and wrap his hand around his gristle. [Loc. 2371]
In moments the convoy of three trucks became shells, perforated canisters, wind-fed thuribles spewing smoke. [Loc. 3107]
A clown head like a three-foot ball of butter with a peeling red laugh and paintless eyes that bled rust, rested in the weeds. It’s conical metal hat sat on the side of its head aimed like artillery at the haunted gray spiral of an old roller coaster that faded into barren trees. [Loc. 3204]
She straddled the tire, reverse cowgirl, feet on pegs and aimed north. Men emerged into the meadow. Piper thumbed the safety lever and lit them up. [Loc. 3748]
† At the half-way point, he revisits his tattoo shop, despite knowing it would be watched by the government and was a crime scene. Piper gets shot and nearly killed protecting Marshall — which, for reasons that baffled me, she rewards him for with sex and an obsessive loyalty. The next major story decision he makes is to revisit Dei House with the mortally-wounded Piper because he needs money, despite also knowing the home would be watched by those same government officials who want his entire family dead. This decision proves, again, to be a mistake.
‡ Quoted below are two gross scenes, featuring Piper’s bizarre desire to sexually reward the hero at inappropriate times. In one, she’s dying of a gunshot wound, and the descriptions go way too far to push subservience, weakness, and the absolute need to have a man put his ‘gristle’ in her at the worst of moments; in the other, she’s barely started recovering from her wounds’ treatments by a few hours, and is dolling herself up in a diner bathroom. Looking sexy and making sure my cleavage is appropriately exposed is probably the first thing I’d worry about, too, if I was just shot.
Despite the pain she pushed herself forward, raising her whole body up out of the seat so that her mouth could reach his. She kissed him with tongue. When he pressed back she ignored her pain and took him by the back of the head. When she felt him cross the line from wanting to sudden needing she wilted, surrendering to the spasms that pierced her, and sank into her seat. Despite trying to hold it back, an apologetic throaty whimper escaped.
She did not complain but folded the sheet and stuffed it behind her head. When the spasms relaxed she said, “Don’t you worry, Mr. Dei.” Her eyes were closed against the pain. “Soon as I’m better.” Her breath caught in a sharp moment of agony. “I’m going to take care of you.” [Loc. 3239]
When she deemed herself sparkling she paused to swear at the [gunshot wound] on her chest. A white bikini top with blue stars worked as a bra. She left the bright red shirt unbuttoned, tying it in a knot at the base of her sternum. She lined her eyes, colored her lips, re-pinned her hair and used a nearly worthless pair of scissors she’d bought to turn the jeans into cutoffs. She checked the mirror and took a moment of pride, then left the bathroom and went into the diner where Marshall sat in a booth reading the menu.
He looked up, stared a full second at her cleavage and then said, “They got good doughnuts here.” [Loc. 3636]
§ Often — perhaps 40% of the time — misspelled as ‘Forester,’ adding to Bone Radio‘s feeling like a draft.