Review: The Bone Key

Dear internet, I have fallen in love.

I have fallen in love with one Kyle Murchison Booth.

Er.  Not a romantic love, because that would be awkward, since that I’m pretty sure he’s gay and uninterested even if not and I’m definitely gay and we probably wouldn’t actually get along if we met and he’s more than a little bit cursed besides.

But beyond all of that, internet, it is definitely love.

Kyle Murchison Booth is the main character of a series of interconnected short stories written by Sarah Monette.  One collection of short stories starring him has already been published, The Bone Key, with more stories floating around in various publications and more still yet unwritten.  (Actually, technically it’s two collections, but one collection was a limited run for a fundraiser, so pretty much impossible to find and thus not counting it.)

I’ve read Monette before, specifically her Doctrine of Labyrinths series, which devoured a month’s worth of weekends, and A Companion To Wolves, written with Elizabeth Bear.  All of which I loved and highly recommend and will probably chatter about at some point later.  But this was the first time I plunged into her short stories, probably because I never realized she had more work out.

I don’t buy many books these days.  I don’t have a lot of money and I own a sizable stack of books as it is.  Plus, any new book that I buy is one more book I have to pack up and move sometime in the next couple of years.  Thus, I practice restraint as much as I can and spend a lot of time at the local library.  When I do buy a book, it’s either one I’ve been wanting to read, but couldn’t get my hands on, or a book that I know I love enough to actually spend money on and haul it everywhere.

This past week, I bought a copy of the Bone Key.  It is one of the few that ranked joining my permanent shelves, and it achieved this ranking within a week of being read.  This doesn’t happen often.

The Bone Key is a collection of horror stories.  But it’s an understated horror, built on atmosphere and complex psychology.  This isn’t Hollywood horror, where things lunge out of closets with chainsaws and blood sputtering out of orifices as they wave chainsaws in your face.  There is, in fact, minimal gore, though many and varied horrible things happen to the characters contained in the pages.  And always, Kyle Booth is on the sidelines, horrified, terrified, and sucked in quite against his will.

The thing about Monette’s work that always strikes me is her ability to write wonderfully flawed characters which readers are either going to utterly love or utterly HATE.  She can also write characters who are quite impossible to dislike, as seen by Mildmay the Fox from the Doctrine of Labyrinths.  I am fairly sure that no one can outright hate Mildmay (and if I am wrong, do not inform me for it shall shatter my world).  But the characters she writes that truly resonate with me are the ones that can so easily be hated.  Yes, I liked Mildmay, but I was really reading for Felix, even when he was being an utter and impossible bag of dicks (which was often, see all of book three and most of two for that matter).

Booth is not detestable the way Felix is.  But not everyone is going to like Booth.  He is a weak willed, wishy-washy, and painfully passive character.  He rarely acts, he’s so dreadfully socially awkward that the reader is left wincing as he stutters his way through one agonizing social encounter after another.  He is no dashing hero who sweeps in to save the day.  In fact, in the fine tradition of horror, the day is rarely saved.  Bad things happen to, well, not always good people, but people who arguably didn’t deserve their fate.  A fate that Booth either can’t or won’t turn aside.  He is, by his own words, not really a good person.

But he tries not to be a bad one.

I think that’s a lot of why I like Kyle Booth.  He tries.  He has a deck stacked against him when it comes to interpersonal interactions and he has an unfortunate allure for the supernatural, which keeps dumping him in one situation over his head after another.  But he does try.  And he usually fails and is thus left with a mess to clean up or walk away from and a life to get back to living when it is all done.  But he continues to live, which is a testament in itself to either an impossible luck or an ability to survive that defies bravery.  And, if you read the stories in, more or less, chronological order, Booth does grow as a character.  He’ll never be the Dashing Hero, but he is slowly facing who he is. And sometimes he runs from that self knowledge, but you can’t undo the act of looking in the mirror. Slowly, subtly, and in spite of himself, I’d say he’s growing as a character.

Kyle Murchison Booth is also attracted to men and asexual.  As he is asexual, the attracted to men bit comes up rarely.  His sexuality is explicit in only two stories in The Bone Key, but it colors him subtly throughout the rest of the stories.  The theme of marriage keeps reoccurring around Booth, a theme that is complicated by a curse on his bloodline, but also by the fact that he isn’t all that interested in the first place.

I love the handling of Booth’s sexuality.  It’s not something that we are told every story.  It isn’t italicized or hoisted on a flag pole so that we definitely notice that yes, this is definitely a defining aspect of Kyle Murchison Booth.   Because Kyle Booth isn’t a Gay Character.  He’s a character who seems to only be attracted to men, if he’s attracted at all, but mostly is not interested in marrying or getting involved with someone else.  This is not always convenient for him, but it’s also not usually a central issue, not in the face of ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural.

The fact that he’s asexual also delights me.  In our romance obsessed society, asexuals are few and far between.  It’s not a positive reflection of sexuality, by any means, as Booth is not a healthy character capable of having a relationship, with a man or a woman.  But his stories have an honesty to them and the fact is, being gay/asexual is not all happy times.

The result is a character that feels real, complex, damaged, and utterly fascinating.  Not everyone is going to like him, but reading his stories becomes an experience of wandering down painful, twisted roads that some of us know too well and finding that the real monster isn’t always the supernatural.  Sometimes it is the human things, the psychological things, that are the true things to fear.

Perhaps someday Monette will write one of her complex and multi-pronged characters and I shall hate them.  Or maybe I just have a terrible tendency to like the people everyone else hates out of sheer pig headedness.  Either of these things may be true.

Until such a time, I’ll wait until she publishes more Booth and pine.  And look for other excellent gay characters to read.  When I find them, I’ll let you know, blog.

Since it is just past Christmas time, here are the links to all of the Kyle Murchison Booth stories that can currently be found online for your reading (and listening) pleasure.  They are, as far as I can tell, in chronological order.

Wait For Me

Elegy For a Demon Lover (podcast)

The Replacement

To Die For Moonlight

White Charles

The Yellow Dressing Gown