Review: THE BONE TREE by Greg Iles (William Morrow)

ilesg-pc2-thebonetreecaMore evil that men do, only this time with cleverer evildoers…

Former prosecutor Penn Cage and his fiancée, reporter and publisher Caitlin Masters, have barely escaped with their lives after being attacked by wealthy businessman Brody Royal and his Double Eagles, a KKK sect with ties to some of Mississippi’s most powerful men. But the real danger has only begun as FBI Special Agent John Kaiser warns Penn that Brody wasn’t the true leader of the Double Eagles. The puppeteer who actually controls the terrorist group is a man far more fearsome: the chief of the state police’s Criminal Investigations Bureau, Forrest Knox.

The only way Penn can save his father, Dr. Tom Cage — who is fleeing a murder charge as well as corrupt cops bent on killing him—is either to make a devil’s bargain with Knox or destroy him. While Penn desperately pursues both options, Caitlin uncovers the real story behind a series of unsolved civil rights murders that may hold the key to the Double Eagles’ downfall. The trail leads her deep into the past, into the black backwaters of the Mississippi River, to a secret killing ground used by slave owners and the Klan for over two hundred years… a place of terrifying evil known only as “the bone tree.”

The Bone Tree is an explosive, action-packed thriller full of twisting intrigue and deadly secrets, a tale that explores the conflicts and casualties that result when the darkest truths of American history come to light. It puts us inside the skin of a noble man who has always fought for justice — now finally pushed beyond his limits.

Just how far will Penn Cage, the hero we thought we knew, go to protect those he loves?

The is the middle volume in Iles critically-acclaimed Natchez Burning trilogy. Penn Cage, Caitlin Masters and their allies have overcome one diabolical obstacle, only to be faced by the real power in Mississippi and Louisiana. The Bone Tree is another tale of Southern politics, historical brutality, and the evil that echoes down the generations.

Returning to the series was pretty easy: Iles did such a good job of setting the scene and introducing us to the characters, that it was very easy to get back into the book. However, and this was a little strange, readers will have to wade through quite a few pages of… establishing scenes. It was slow going for a couple hundred pages, and that was a little frustrating. (I really hope this is not the case for book three.) The novel did improve a lot around the halfway mark, and I found myself once again pretty hooked on the story. It’s worth the effort to get to the halfway point, but I do wish we hadn’t had to.

Most novels that I’ve read are loosely based around the premise of protagonists overcoming obstacles. Whether they are legal, romantic, financial, extraterrestrial, or any of the other myriad difficulties that can face a person in their life, that’s frequently the thrust of a story. But what if the protagonists are the obstacle? This is something The Bone Tree and, to a lesser extent, Natchez Burning has me thinking about: Penn Cage and Caitlin Masters spend so much of their time getting in the way of other people, making boneheaded, and frankly dangerous decisions.

ilesg-pc5-bonetreeukThey are, without a doubt, the weak links in this novel. Caitlin’s single-minded focus on the story is somewhat cliche, but also proves deadly. Penn’s arrogance makes him act against the FBI, his family, and allies (on numerous occasions). They are both narcissistic, expecting everyone else to tell them everything, but then withholding as much as they can — only to then have a tantrum whenever they realize that, say the FBI didn’t tell them everything. This is entirely justifiable and expected, especially given Cage and Master’s behaviour. I’m not sure I’ve read so many pages in a series in which I dislike the main characters so much…

It should be said, though, that every other character is very well written. Often, they are some of the most interesting characters I’ve read in a while. All of the Double Eagles prove to be three-dimensional, complex villains. Cage’s father and mother have different layers that are revealed over the course of the novel. The various allies they pick up along the way are interesting, sensible and realistic in their (re)actions.

Unfortunately, the most momentous event in the novel is one I can’t write about without spoiling everything (whatever you do, don’t read the synopsis for Mississippi Blood, because that will also spoil it). To be vague and mysterious, though: the event itself did not have a particularly big impact on me, but other characters’ reactions to it did, and were quite moving. The swift confrontation between Penn and Forrest was also very well-done.

Also, given the length of the novel, a fair number of solutions happened ‘off-screen’, which was also a little disappointing. After reading 1,400 pages, things that were set up both books in the series just… ended. And we were told they ended, but not shown. I felt a little cheated…

Iles’s prose is still great, and the story he’s woven is epic in scope. While the execution isn’t flawless, it’s certainly impressive and frequently engaging. I’m looking forward to reading Mississippi Blood.


Greg Iles’s Natchez Burning and The Bone Tree are out now, published by William Morrow in Canada and the US, and Harper in the UK. The final volume in the trilogy, Mississippi Blood is published in March 2017.


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