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Bones & Runes

By Stephen Embleton 

18 Apr, 2024

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Stephen Embleton’s 2020 Bones & Runes is a stand-alone modern fantasy novel.

Mlilo, an isangoma, is ambushed and mugged. The attackers do not seek mere money. They steal Mlilo’s sacred amathambo (bones used in sacred rites).

Mlilo has a good idea where his relics were taken. It’s not somewhere prudent living mortals venture alone. Or really, at all. Mlilo’s relics are in Abaphansi, the world of the heavens. 

Fortuitously the South African isangoma can call on his friend Dan. Like Mlilo, Dan studies occult traditions. However, Dan draws on an entirely different tradition. Dan is a druid. Perhaps together, Dan and Mlilo can accomplish what would be likely impossible for one adept alone.

Alternatively, the two young men might find themselves out of their depths. Having ventured into Abaphansi, they might find themselves confronted by overwhelming forces. Dan and Mlilo might be lucky to escape back to the mortal realm with their lives.

Mlilo and Dan are not the only students of divine paths in South Africa. In fact, South Africa has an abundance of priest, shamans, druids, gurus, and the like. Most are far too prudent to get roped into Mlilo and Dan’s adventure. Amira, a student of Hindu traditions, might not be. Too bad she’s Dan’s ex and inclined to take his statements with a grain of salt.

Much rides on the trio rising to the occasion. Unopposed, uNosithwalangcengce, Queen of the hyenas, will use Mlilo’s relics to regain power lost generations ago. uNosithwalangcengce is a very hungry god and she covets the mortal world.


Enjoyment of books can be nobbled by factors outside the author’s control. For example, although I found links at various booksellers (see below), actually getting hold of this text was difficult, time-consuming and involved several refunds. Had an ebook been available when I ordered Bones & Runes, that would have been the way to go. Not Embleton’s fault.

It was also not the author’s fault that the font size in the deadtree book is painfully tiny. Progress through the text was necessarily slow, as I had to keep stopping due to eyestrain. The best solution would have been to buy the ebook, which was an option I didn’t have when I ordered the novel.

A frequent critique of works like this is that Christianity is curiously absent (despite its ubiquity in modern Africa). Take heart! There is a Christian priest featured. Oom Sol doesn’t present a flattering portrait of his faith [1], being a cult leader, but he is present. Interesting that a supposed monotheist would ally himself with the Hyena Queen. How can a monotheist ally with an entity that shouldn’t be possible in his cosmology? Self-servingly.

Embleton’s tale is engaging and fast paced, his South Africa vividly portrayed. The narrative draws on a diverse assortment of traditions (whose verisimilitude I can’t really judge, not belonging to any of them). Rather alarmingly for the protagonists, Mlilo’s is predominant and as the gods so kindly point out to him, in his tradition failure is very much an option even for the best of heroes. 

If only the publisher had opted for a larger font…

Bones & Runes is available here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Chapters-Indigo), and here (Words Worth Books). I did not find Bones & Runes for order at Amazon US or Apple Books.

1: One of the unsurprising details in a setting with a wide diversity of valid religions is that there’s also a recurring thread of you’re doing religion X wrong.” The objectors point to lapses in following the tenets and rituals of the practitioner’s religion, rather than saying that the tenets and rituals themselves are wrong. The mainstream druids don’t care much about what Mlilo (the isangoma) and Amira (the Hindu) do, but they sure have opinions on Dan (the druid) and Dan’s mentor.