Of Bone and Thunder by Chris Evans

Chris Evans is the author of the nonfiction book, Bloody Jungle: The War in Vietnam. He is a military historian and was born in Canada. Of Bone and Thunder (Gallery Books, 496 pp., $26.99, hardcover; $9.90, paper) is a fantasy novel based on the Vietnam War.

The cover shows—not a helicopter hovering over dense green jungle—but a dragon flying over triple canopy jungle. We are told that Evans has given us a “brilliant, ground-breaking new epic, a unique and penetrating vision channeling the cultural upheaval, racial animus and wholesale destruction of the Vietnam War.”

The book is dedicated to “all the Vietnam War veterans” the author “had the great fortune to know. You inspired me with your service and honor me with your friendship.”

The giant dragons, called “rags,” transport soldiers around and function as gunships. There is an enormous amount of information in the book about the care and feeding of the dragons and about the dangers of working with them. As unsafe as the helicopters in Vietnam were, this book made me realize that flying dragons would have been a lot worse.

There are many familiar Vietnam War elements in this fantasy novel, including elephant grass, bamboo, and the overemphasis on body counts. The enemy, known as the Forest Collective, wears the same peasant garb as the villagers, so there is no way to know who is who. Disgust is shown for an enemy “who showed little desire to engage in a sustained battle.”

Evans does a great job presenting a large cast of familiar characters: a grizzled old sergeant; war-weary enlisted men who want nothing more than to go home; newbies who don’t know which end is up; and officers so out of touch that their commands are worse than worthless.

The book also deals with the issues of women serving in combat and the resistance of the old soldiers to the introduction of new methods of warfare. All of this is served up in fantasy trappings with the usual odd names and strange titles and exotic animals that seem impossible to pronounce.

Author Chris Evans

Underneath these trappings is a robust tale of warfare and adventure in a strange land dominated by a strange people called Slyts. They pour endlessly out of the jungle, killing the king’s forces effortlessly without being seen. The dragons fly in with new troops, their wings going, “whup, whup,” just like the helicopters did in Vietnam.

One character says that the word “Slyt,”  is “an ugly, ugly word. Why men had to be so crude and so cruel, she didn’t understand.” I’ve read similar comments about infantrymen’s tendency to call the enemy in Vietnam gooks, slopes and worse. It’s about dehumanizing the enemy.

The men who fight the Slyts have grudging respect for them: One calls them “about the cunningest, meanest little fucker[s] you ever want to tangle with, and that’s no lie.” It’s proposed that the entire country be burned to the ground so they can start over.

Once I grew accustomed to the conventions of the fantasy novel and got involved in the story and the military cock-ups that were familiar to me from the Vietnam War, I quite enjoyed this novel. I also found myself hoping that there would be a sequel so I could find out how the few characters who survived might do in their next war adventures.

Those who would like to read more novels of the Vietnam War in fantasy guise should look at books written by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, a Vietnam veteran, and by the late Lucius Shephard, who was not, but who was often mistaken for one.

The author’s website is www.chrisevasnsauthor.com

—David Willson