David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite books. So when Barnes and Noble was running a sale on his new book The Bone Clocks I knew that I had to buy it. When I first started reading it within 50 pages I felt that it was inferior to Cloud Atlas. But that book started slow too so I pressed on. Having just finished The Bone Clocks I can say that it does not get much better throughout the overly long six hundred page story and is in fact one of the most disappointing books I have ever read.
Mitchell tries to pull his usual tricks in The Bone Clocks. Like his other books, this one is really a collection of novellas related to each other only by thin threads. This time around Mitchell tries to put a little more structure in the narrative. The stories are told from different vantage points but all center around Holly Sykes. We meet Holly in 1980s England as she runs away from home and follow her through to the 2040s in apocalyptic Ireland. Her life is encountered through the eyes of various characters at different times in history.
The Bone Clocks also has a more solid continuous thread. Throughout the first 400 pages we get hints about an international cabal of mystics at war with each other. Called the Horologists and Anchorites, the two sides have been battling for years to stay immortal, and Holly Sykes ends up being caught in the middle of it. But it is not until the very end that we actually get some detail about the mystical war.
Unfortunately, neither of the parts of this book really work. Unlike Cloud Atlas, the individual novellas are not very interesting, and tend to drag on. Mitchell also decides not to write each in different styles. Instead they are all in first person and they all sound like the exact same narrator even though they are supposed to be different characters. While the novellas in Cloud Atlas could have stood on their own, the novellas in The Bone Clocks are really dull on their own right, and Mitchell hopes that connecting them together will somehow magically make them interesting. It does not work, and all remain dull until the final novella in 2040s Ireland.
Secondly, the overarching plot is not very interesting as well. The idea of immortals fighting each other is interesting, but Mitchell does not spend the time to do the heavy universe building necessary to make the conflict unique. Instead the powers of the immortals are never really clear and drop to the level of standard magical powers. Basically the immortals can do things like shoot psychokinetic energy and each other and read minds. The powers never end up being interesting enough to make the story exciting and instead the whole overarching plot just fizzles.
The fact that the stories do not really work with each other deprives The Bone Clocks of the raw emotional power of Cloud Atlas. That book was wonderful and heartbreaking. As my girlfriend likes to describe it, Cloud Atlas is a love letter to humanity. I found myself wishing for scenes from Cloud Atlas like when Sixsmith writes his suicide letter or Ewing’s decision to join anti-slavery organizations. But instead we get very shallow and superficial emotions that never quite work.
There is some interesting parts of The Bone Clocks. Like I said, the last novella is really interesting and was nice return to form for Mitchell. The problem is that you have to get through five-sixths of a dull book to get to it. The other interesting thing about the books is that it ties into the larger Mitchell multiverse. Characters from his other books appear and we even get a hint about the origin of the advanced Prescience civilization in the Cloud Atlas post-apocalyptic sections. It just never is enough to elevate the novel to anything special.