Thursday, June 28, 2007

Bone Wars by Brett Davis (1998)

Paperback cover blurb


Montana, 1876. Othniel Charles Marsh, one of the two top paleontologists in the world, is in the state's Judith River fossil beds, doing what he does best: digging up the bones of dinosaurs. Montana is a big state, but Marsh can't rest easy. Edward Drinker Cope, his biggest rival, and the other top paleontologist in the world, is also in the area, and there simply aren't enough bones for both of them, leading them to play dirty tricks. And time itself is against them: the fierce snows of winter are on the way and, rumor has it, so is Sitting Bull, fresh from his triumph at Little Big Horn.

Another complication: two foreign scientists are also competing for the bones. One says hews from Sweden, the other says he's from Iceland. One of them enlists Cope to help him, while the other befriends Marsh.

Marsh and Cope don't want the fossils to leave the country, so they decide to bury the hatchet and work together to outwit the visitors. This turns out to be harder than they thought. The foreign scientists possess amazing technology, but that's because they are much more foreign than they claimed. They don't just want to take the bones out of the country – they’re fighting over who will get to take them clean off the planet...

My thoughts

The rivalry between Victorian Era paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh is legendary. These men hated each other, so much so they even ordered fossils at their sites destroyed so the other wouldn’t collect them. But the result of this feud was the discovery dozens of new dinosaur species, although both men tended to be sloppy with identification (which is why we now call brontosaurus “apatosaurus”).

Davis fails to capture either of the two men’s fire in Bone Wars. He could have a lot of fun with the premise of them joining forces, but their characterizations struck me as rather bland, and as a result the 300-page novel plods along about as slowly as a bronto… I mean apatosaurus. There’s no real urgency in what either character does given the situation they’re in, and when they have to swallow their pride and make amends, a moment that could’ve been the most colorful in the novel turns into nothing more than a polite chat.

Anyone looking for dinosaurs in the flesh and blood will be disappointed. Bone Wars is about the men who sniff out the bones, and space aliens.

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