Book cover: The Fisher of Bones - Sarah Gailey (a woman in red robes with a staff)A religious people on an epic journey, following their seer through the wilderness in search of a promised land. Sound familiar? It won’t be…

The prophet – or Fisher – has guided his people from the cities into hardship, listening to the whispers of the Gods and reading the words they inscribe into the mystical bones he carries (in the Ark of the Covenant a fancy chest). He gave up his sight, his name and much of his life to being their servant. They have faith in him to see them to safety and the bounty of the Land of Plenty. They believe his promises that there is an appointed hour by when they must arrive.

But the prophet is dying. His pregnant daughter is named Fisher in his place and appointed his heir. But although her eyes blacken with the Gods’ favour, she doesn’t receive the same reflexive support from her tribe. As new challenges arise, her followers’ faith falters – and Fisher has a lot to learn about leadership. Can she see them safely to their promised homeland?

What’s not to like about the audacious pitch of a gender-flipped fantasy retelling of one of the great stories of faith and leadership? I’m always here for challenging expectations and I greatly enjoyed Gailey’s hippo caper romp River of Teeth. So I picked up The Fisher of Bones with high expectations.

The world-building here is narrow: we learn nothing next to nothing about what the tribe left behind and very little of the lands they pass through. The narrative cleaves tightly to Fisher, introducing only a handful of the rest of the tribe (predominantly the trouble makers) and sketching them in the barest terms: angry words, prejudices, fears, flickering hopes. It makes for very little to latch on to, although I liked Fisher well enough (she’s overwhelmed, trying her best, which I relate to strongly at the moment) and enjoyed the novelty of a protagonist who was first pregnant, then a new mother.

I also enjoyed her husband Marc’s arc, which helped underline that this isn’t our world. This is a world where Gods speak to their chosen one and magic can heal. The tribe may feel familiar and have recognisable responses (it was easy to be annoyed with Rand, and to tut at the willingness to put aside values and reject outsiders when under pressure), but this isn’t the Exodus from Egypt. And the ending leaves us on the shores of a very strange world indeed.

But I do think it’s flawed. It’s a big vision, closely controlled – too closely, for my liking in the end. The novella lurches from one briefly-sketched crisis to the next, never pausing to explore the world (or the characters) or really allow any situation to play out in full. It often makes the resolutions feel telegraphed and/or too easy – there’s no time for the pressure to build, for there to be failures on the road to success.

Whether read as a novelette or in the serial format now available from Serial Box, it doesn’t quite work for me. As a novelette, it feels too fragmented; as a serial, I felt cheated by just how short each episode was. That said, as the framework for a fuller re-telling, it’s very intriguing – if this were the outline for a novel, I’d be right here to read it. And in spite of my whinging, I am intrigued to find out what happens next: The Fisher of Bones is not self-contained, ending on a cliffhanger that turns the world upside down. As such, I suspect I won’t be the only one to find it frustrating. But it’s worth a look (maybe once a second season is available? I’m sort of taking on faith that one will be forthcoming).

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…unrelated: CHECK OUT THAT COVER ART. One of my favourite things about reading this via Serial Box was that I got to gaze at it on a regular basis. It’s luminous. Love it.