Fresh Meat: Prophet of Bones by Ted Kosmatka

Prophet of Bones by Ted Kosmatka is an alternate-earth bioterror thriller (available April 2, 2013).

Scientist Paul Carlson is unprepared for what he finds when he’s summoned to a top-secret archeological dig on the remote island of Flores. He’s heard tales, of course, and been shown pictures, but the strange bones buried there appear to belong to a never-before-seen species of tool user—a species whose very existence could turn modern science on its head and bring chaos to the world’s religions.

This is actually quite fitting, for Paul is the protagonist of Prophet of Bones by Ted Kosmatka—a book that is itself a bit of a new species.

Prophet of Bones is what happens when you start with a foundation of Harry-Turtledove-style alternate-history science fiction:

She flipped to the next card. “In what year did Darwin write On the Origin of Species?”

“In 1859.”

“When did Darwin’s theory lose the confidence of the scientific community?”

“That was 1932.” Anticipating the next question, Paul continued: “When Kohlhorster invented potassium-argon dating.”

“Why was this important?”

“The new dating method proved the earth wasn’t as old as the evolutionists thought.”

“When was the theory of evolution finally debunked completely?”

“In 1954, when Willard F. Libby invented carbon-14 dating at the University of Chicago.”

“Good,” his mother said and flipped another card. “And why else was he known?”

“He won the Nobel Prize in 1960, when he used carbon dating to prove, once and for all, that the earth was fifty-eight hundred years old.”

Throw in some Dan-Brown-ian theology-tinged conspiracy theory:

That night, staring at the ceiling from one of the double beds, James said, “If those bones aren’t us . . . then I wonder what they were like.”

“They had fire and stone tools,” Paul said. “They were probably a lot like us.”

“We act like we’re the chosen ones, you know? But what if it wasn’t like that?”

“Don’t think about it,” Margaret said.

“What if God had all these different varieties . . . all these different walks, these different options at the beginning, and we’re just the ones who killed the others off?”

“Shut up,” she said.

“What if there wasn’t just one Adam but a hundred Adams?”

“Shut the fuck up, James,” Margaret said.

There was a long quiet, the sound of the street filtering through the thin walls. “Us or other,” James said softly, not a question but something else, the listing of two equal alternatives. After another long quiet he said, “Paul, if you get your samples back to your lab, you’ll be able to tell, won’t you?”

Paul thought of the evaluation team and wondered. He said nothing.

“The winners write the history books,” James said. “Maybe the winners write the bibles, too. I wonder what religion died with them.”

Add a dash of Jurassic-Park-era Michael-Crichton-esque bio-thriller:

The old man stared through the bars. His face made an expression that might have been a smile. “We house a lot of animals here at the facility.” He swept his arm wide. “I’ve been called a collector, but that isn’t true. Collectors wish only to possess, but there’s work being done here. Important work. We do things here, you understand.”


At that moment, a cry rose up from the distance— a strange sound that Gavin couldn’t place. It came from somewhere around the next bend of the trail, from a different series of cages no doubt, nestled somewhere farther out on the grounds. At first the sound seemed to be the howl of a wounded dog, or perhaps a monkey. But it changed as it rose in pitch, transforming into a screech of anguish.

Gavin looked to the old man for an explanation, but the old man offered only, “There are places here where the work is lost. Places I don’t visit anymore.”

And top it all off with some Elmore-Leonard-y dark humor:

“I was at the doctor today for, like, three hours—psoriasis, the bane of my life—and they had me filling out these forms, because it was my first time there.” He took a bite of pizza, barely stopping for breath. “And you know those boxes you’re supposed to check, the ones that list you had this and you had that?”

“Uh, not really.”

“The paperwork when you first see a new doctor. There’s a clipboard, and a sheet of paper with a list of every disease in the world.”

“Oh, right.”

“Well, there’s this spot where you’re supposed to list the causes of death for close relatives. You know, after all these boxes you have to tick off. Your grandfather died of x marks the box. All I could write was ‘Germans.’ They didn’t have a box for it.”

“I suppose they wouldn’t.”

“I mean, my parents are still alive, and as I’m filling it out, I’m thinking of my great-aunts and great-uncles and grandparents, all the ones who have actually died, and I’ve really got nothing to go on, you know?”

Paul nodded.

“I mean, that’s what family history is for. Your grandfather drops dead of a coronary at sixty, then you shouldn’t eat cheese, right?”

“Sounds logical.”

“But I don’t have anything like that. I mean, for all I know, I might come from a family of immortals. Our one Achilles’ heel: fucking Germans.”

Unlike the mysterious bones Paul helps to unearth on Flores, Kosmatka’s Prophet of Bones isn’t likely to inspire a scientific revolution or spark a religious crisis of faith; it does, however, defy categorization. These days, more and more crime writers are choosing to step outside the narrow bounds of genre and instead go play in sandboxes of their own making. The result is some truly unique – and uniquely awesome—classification-defying, boundary-pushing fiction, and I, for one, couldn’t be more thrilled.

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Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for Crimespree Magazine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.

Read all Katrina Niidas Holm’s posts for Criminal Element.

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