by Jeff Smith

Graphix/Cartoon Books

11 volumes

If ever there was a graphic-novel epic, Bone is it. This fantasy saga spans nine main volumes, plus two prequels. It’s a true Tolkienesque fantasy, complete with a fully realized universe, gripping action, and a nail-biting quest for truth and victory over cataclysmic evil.

Bone is primarily the story of three cousins: Fone Bone (the main character), Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone. As their names imply, Fone Bone is plain but genuine and loyal, Phoney Bone is a selfish charlatan, and Smiley Bone is a happy but brainless goofball.

The story begins with the three cousins wandering in the desert–they’ve been run out of Boneville by citizens who are sick of Phoney’s endless schemes. Trying to find their way home, they stumble instead into a lush valley where fierce rat creatures roam the woods, a force called “the dreaming” underpins the universe, and dragons and a special race of humans called Veni-Yan-Cari maintain the dreaming’s balance.

Fone, separated from his cousins, falls in with Gran’ma Ben and her granddaughter Thorn, who live alone on a cow farm in the forest (more about them later). Phoney and Smiley, meanwhile, fall in with Lucius Down, a gruff behemoth of a man who owns a tavern not far from Gran’ma Ben’s farm.

The three cousins soon reunite and, together with their new friends, face down the mysterious Hooded One, who is plotting to unleash the evil Lord of the Locusts on the valley.

Fone is himself an inspiring character. He begins the story as a frustrated hand-wringer, angry with Phoney’s schemes but powerless to effect real change. By epic’s end, however, he’s become a quietly courageous hero and the leader of his family. He is an Everyman who rises to challenges he didn’t even know existed.

But he, of course, is not my focus. Which brings me to Bone‘s super secondaries, Gran’ma Ben and Thorn. Over the course of the story, Fone discovers that both these women (as well as Lucius) are not what they seem: each has a deeply hidden history that proves crucial to the outcome of the story.

That hidden history is immediately apparent when we meet Gran’ma Ben. By the end of the first volume, we know that she can wrestle full-grown cows, kill rat creatures with her bare hands, and run at racehorse speeds. In other words, she’s tough to the point of being superhuman. There are also hints of a complicated past involving Lucius, who turns out to be a powerful warrior in disguise.

I won’t spoil the surprise of Gran’ma Ben’s true identity, but suffice to say that her concerns range far beyond the borders of her little farm. She’s something of a Gandalf figure: wise, with hidden connections to the unseen, but fallible and saddled with the heavy task of inspiring a new generation to finish the fight she started years before.

Gran’ma Ben is an inspiring reminder that age and experience are relevant and often game-changing. She’s the kind of character who might prompt girls to seek out strong female mentors–or even one they can remember decades later, when they’re entering middle age and wondering if they still have value in our youth-obsessed culture.

As for Thorn, she turns out to be the lynchpin of the entire story. Like her grandmother, she has a secret identity; but unlike her grandmother, she doesn’t know it. And when her true identity comes to the surface, she’s not entirely sure she wants to accept it.

For girls facing an unexpected ordeal–the death of a parent, serious illness, a sudden cross-country move–Thorn is inspiration incarnate. Her transformation from unassuming farm girl to capable leader is gradual and authentic, full of plenty of missteps and backward glances but ultimately successful.

If Fone is the story’s Everyman, Thorn is the Everywoman: the ordinary person who proves to be extraordinary. She’s the classic everyday-citizen-turned-questing-hero(ine), the character who makes girls stop and think, “Maybe there’s more in me than I thought.”

Ultimately, Bone is a worthwhile read on any account–but these two strong women elevate it to must-read status.

Smith has now published a second saga set in the same universe, Bone: Quest for the Spark.

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