Book Review: Stephen Leigh’s The Secret of the Lona

Awhile back, I read and reviewed a Dr. Bones novel based on the cheesy cover, and the fact that it was only a dollar.

Fast forward to the present day, where I found another Dr. Bones book, with an equally cheesy cover. Score! Only this time it was a buck seventy five … but there was a Phantom Lady trading card stuck in the pages like a bookmark, so, uh, that makes it even, right? Unfortunately, I’ve since lost that trading card, but what can you do.

Anyway, the Dr. Bones series is a wonderful example of cheesy late 80’s/early 90’s science fiction. For one, the covers look like the boxes to Konami NES games. Seriously, slap a Nintendo logo on that cover, and you’ve got an 8 bit platformer that you’ve never beaten the third level on.

On top of that, the series has multiple authors– Stephen Leigh wrote the first one, and after that, it’s a different author each time. (Thomas Wylde wrote the most in the series, at two novels). It’s actually kind of interesting, in that the series was developed as a sort of ‘franchise’ by Byron Preiss Visual Publications, based on character sketches by comics legend Jim Steranko. Or just ‘Steranko’ as he’s credited in the book, because when you’re doing legitimate art like pulpy sci fi novel covers, you want to use a proper artist name. I don’t know how I missed the Steranko connection last time I read Dr . Bones book, but it just adds an extra layer of fun weirdness to the series.

Bones sketch

There’s even character sketches in the back. 

Between the Nintendo-worthy covers, the rotating writers, and the Steranko character designs, the plot of Dr. Bones: The Secret of the Lona is almost incidental. This is the first book in the series, and serves as Dr. Bones’ origin story … to the point where Dr. Bones hasn’t earned his doctorate yet by the end of the book. False advertising in a title, perhaps, but ‘Grad Student Bones’ doesn’t sound nearly as snappy.

Anyway, the plot follows Not-Yet-A-Doctor Bones as he grows up. It starts at his ultra-billionaire dad’s ranch in Africa, which … honestly has some odd colonial undertones to it. Like, Leigh is trying to show a crazy future where Africa is the center of the world, rather than North America or Europe … but at the same time, the Bones family compound still has acacia fences to keep wildlife out, and they’re faithfully served by an African tribesman whose family has played their butler for generations. To be fair, said butler-character doesn’t dress in animal pelts and wave a spear around … but he does slick his hair back with lion fat, which strikes me as a really, really expensive sort of hair gel.

Things don’t stay at the Bones ranch for very long, though, as the young Not-Even-In-College-Yet Bones is set to whisk off to the Obligatory Space Naval Academy on Mars. But, before he goes, he finds his dad’s secret chamber full of contraband alien artifacts. Dun dun dun! Naturally, Bones responds to this by stealing the rarest and most invaluable of the lot: a plot-crystal thing known as a Space Seed. The Space Seed in turn establishes a psychic link with Bones, because of course it does.

From there, the novel kind of meanders about. There’s a bit of a space opera/sci fi slant to things for a good chunk of the middle of the book, when Cadet Bones drops out of the Space Naval Academy in order to join a bunch of Space Mercenaries to go off and have vaguely Military Sci-Fi adventures for a few chapters.

Meanwhile, an evil corporate guy with a grudge against the Bones family decides he’s going to take REVEEEENGE on them by trying to take over the company, which involves him recruiting, cybernetically enhancing, and training a dude by the name of Jackson. (Jackson’s the dude holding a space fencepost over his shoulder in the background of the cover). Oh, and Jackson of course is trained in aikido by a Generic Japanese Master dude. Again, not insulting, but just a sort of lazy, ‘casting straight from trope central’ kind of thing.

So yeah. The book honestly doesn’t have much of a climax. Or, well, technically it does, but it’s not that exciting. Technically-Not-Even-Degreed-Yet Bones eventually has the bright idea (helped along by a weirdo jellyfish alien who naturally is an expert on Plot Crystals) of taking his Plot Crystal to the other Plot Crystals in some museum somewhere, at which point they kind of start glowing at each other and it’s enough to make the aliens known as the Lona from stopping their big catastrophic invasion. An invasion that pretty much takes place off camera and doesn’t even effect human-occupied space yet. Huh. After that, Mr. Bones has enough time to zip back to earth to prevent bad corporate guy from taking over, and Jackson has a last-minute change of heart when he’s sent to kill Bones, at which point they team up and are bros for life (or at least for the rest of the series).

The end.

So yeah. Leigh was writing for hire here, so I guess I can’t fault him for phoning in the plot. The Secret of the Lona is kind of inspirational, in that it’s a book that I can look at and say “if this got published … “ Then again, I don’t have Jim Steranko artwork to base everything on, either. Still, with the gloriously cheesy covers, and the pulpy space opera between them (complete with ridiculous alien names like ‘shri,’ ‘!xaka!’ or ‘hlidskji,’) these Dr. Bones novels have a retro charm of their very own. So, I’ll keep an eye out for those bright silver covers next time I hit up a used bookstore.

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