Nathan’s review of The Hand That Casts the Bone by HL Tinsley
I originally read the first book in the Vanguard series, We Men of Ash and Shadow in 2021 when it became a SPFBO finalist. That book became one of my insta-favorites, and I ranked it as my second overall pick in its finalist pool (my overall favorite was Legacy of the Brightwash – yes, there are common themes in my obsession with dark gaslamp fantasies!). I was completely and entirely absorbed into the city of D’Orsee, and I was fascinated by the complex and honestly pretty messed up relationship between John Vanguard and his protégée (if that is even the right word) Tarryn.
This series is a total standout of a grimdark fantasy series, and I would really like to see it get spoken about with same enthusiasm and popularity of the other major grimdark authors. Tinsley’s books perhaps evoke the greatest sense or feeling of a dark and gritty fantasy, to the extent where I could feel the grit and grime on my skin as I read Tinsley’s prose. If you want a series that feels like its crawling with an underground world of crime and terror, D’Orsee is going to be one of your new favorite fantasy cities. In a (relatively, for the fantasy genre) short book and pretty sparse descriptions, Tinsley paints a perfect picture of a gritty city on the precipice of collapse and revolution. Without taking 1000 pages Tinsley populates D’Orsee with a wide variety of fantasy characters that you might not necessarily come to love (because nothing about this book is warm and fuzzy) but you are more than guaranteed to be entertained by.
Because of this grimy aesthetic, the magic in this book is pretty much absent. A couple of the characters do have a bit of magic, in which they can make themselves invisible. Thematically and aesthetically this works so well for book because Tinsley invokes the danger of the shadowy corners, nooks, and crannies of D’Orsee. The protagonist, John Vanguard, is able to use the shadows to use his magical abilities to hide, but so can other more nefarious characters!
While I am focusing on many of the grimmer and darker elements here, and this book is definitely a grimdark novel, I do want to say that Tinsley exhibits a lot of restraint and control. Sometimes authors go way too far in terms of the violence, gore, etc. It even gets to the point sometimes where dark = sexual assault in a gross way. Tinsley does none of that here. There are some squelchy moments in the books, but Tinsley uses them sparingly for maximum effect. The grimmness and darkness of this story comes more from the sense of dread Tinsley cultivates. It also comes from Tinsley’s emphasis on the plight of the working and underclasses; Tinsey vividly paints the slop and oppression of those not in power , and class relations are a major theme throughout the novel.
If you have already read We Men of Ash and Shadow, be ready for a very different reading experience with The Hand that Casts the Bone. I still really liked this second book, but in very different ways than I liked the first one. This book felt a lot bigger in terms of its world and politics than the first book. We spend a lot of time outside of D’Orsee with new POV characters (some new to the series, others characters we came to know in the previous book!). Therefore, while We Men was very much rooted in the relationship between Vanguard and Tarryn, this book is much more about the larger global politics and power grabs that are going on. There are, admittedly, some pros and cons with this shift in perspective and scope. On the good end, there were some really awesome payoffs for things that Tinsley started in We Men. However, on the downside this means that we spend a lot less time with Vanguard and Tarryn in this book. I particularly felt that Tarryn got the short end of the stick here; he was the most fascinating character from We Men, but plays a pretty minor role here. Maybe it was just me, but I kind of got the feeling that Tinsley didn’t know how to incorporate Tarryn into the larger politics that were shifting the main focus of the narrative. None of these elements ruined the book for me, but they did throw me off at first. I also want to note that there is a confrontation between Vanguard and Tarryn that was one of the best and intense scenes in a fantasy novel I have read!
The other major change is that the POVs are a bit more…stationary? If you read We Men then you probably already know that Tinsley was very loose with the POV shifts; a POV could shift from one sentence to the next with little indication. This didn’t bother me at all, but I know it bothered a lot of other readers. Those abrupt shifts in POV don’t really happen in The Hand that Casts the Bone.
The end of the book shakes everything up and radically changes the status quo. Tinsley really didn’t hold back in allowing the plot and characters to push forward in many exciting ways. I asked Tinsley on Twitter a while back how many more books we should expect, and she said (at the time) she was planning on one or two more in the Vanguard series. I will definitely join the ride for how many every books are left!
Concluding Thoughts: Another entertaining entry in Tinsley’s gaslamp grimdark series, this book expands the city of D’Orsee and beyond. Tinsley’s prose continues to vividly illustrate the grit and grime of an oppressed population and a city on the precipice of revolution. Highly recommended for all fans of gritty and grimy fantasy with complicated characters and politics.
Thank you for reading my review of The Hand That Casts the Bone!