The Hand That Casts the Bone by HL Tinsley: Book Review - The Fantasy Review

The Hand That Casts the Bone by HL Tinsley: Book Review

Nathan‘s The Hand That Casts the Bone Book Review

Book Two in the Vanguard series 


435 pages 

This Book is For You is You Like: 

  • Gaslamp Fantasy
  • Dark, gritty cities 
  • Political conflicts 
  • Morally grey characters 

This Book is Not For You if You are Looking For: 

  • Traditional epic fantasies 
  • Clean protagonists 
  • High fantasy or a lot of magic 

Author’s Blurb

‘The Hand that Casts the Bone’ is the second book in the Vanguard Series and continues the journey of protagonist, John Vanguard, as he negotiates his way through a city rife with crime and corruption. A Grimdark gas lamp novel, ‘The Hand that Casts the Bone’ follows ‘We Men of Ash and Shadow’ in its themes of redemption, betrayal and revolution.

‘It was funny how everything came down to resources. Who had them, who wanted them, and who would die for them. That was the thing, when you cast a bone into the dog pit to watch the hounds fight; it was not the strongest dog that won. It was the hand that cast the bone.’

Alone in a city on the cusp of revolution, separated from his allies and with nothing to his name, former mercenary John Vanguard finds vigilante life can be a poorly paid gig. When an influential aristocrat’s death causes a sudden shift in the balance of power, Vanguard finds himself once more caught in the crossfire between dangerous men with murderous ambitions.From his tower far above the city, Captain Sanquain seeks to tighten his iron grip on the capital and its citizens. Amidst the chaos of the Black Zone, a deadly turf war is brewing between the crime lords. Outside the city, libertarian Argent Cooke struggles to gather support for the uprising. And from the smog-stained rooftops, Vanguard’s former protégé Tarryn Leersac is watching all.

With any hopes of redemption fading, Vanguard finds one last shred of hope in the form of an old friend, risen from the dead and promising the chance for atonement.

The Hand That Casts the Bone Book Review

*There are light spoilers for We Men of Ash and Shadow in this review, but I tried to keep them to an absolute minimum

I originally read the first book in the Vanguard series, We Men of Ash and Shadow, in 2021 when it became a SPFBO finalist. That book became one of my insta-favorites, and I ranked it as my second overall pick in its finalist pool (my overall favorite was Legacy of the Brightwash – yes, there are common themes in my obsession with dark gaslamp fantasies!). I was completely and entirely absorbed into the city of D’Orsee, and I was fascinated by the complex and honestly pretty messed up relationship between John Vanguard and his protégée (if that is even the right word) Tarryn. 

This series is a total standout of a grimdark fantasy series, and I would really like to see it get spoken about with same enthusiasm and popularity of the other major grimdark authors. Tinsley’s books perhaps evoke the greatest sense or feeling of a dark and gritty world, to the extent where I could feel the grit and grime on my skin as I read Tinsley’s prose. If you want a series that feels like its crawling with an underground world of crime and terror, D’Orsee is going to be one of your new favorite fantasy cities. In a (relatively, for the fantasy genre) short book and pretty sparse descriptions, Tinsley paints a perfect picture of a gritty city on the precipice of collapse and revolution. Without taking 1000 pages Tinsley populates D’Orsee with a wide variety of fantasy characters that you might not necessarily come to love (because nothing about this book is warm and fuzzy) but you are more than guaranteed to be entertained by. 

Because of this grimy aesthetic, the magic in this book is pretty much absent. A couple of the characters do have a bit of magic, in which they can make themselves invisible. Thematically and aesthetically this works so well for book because Tinsley invokes the danger of the shadowy corners, nooks, and crannies of D’Orsee. The protagonist, John Vanguard, is able to use the shadows to use his magical abilities to hide, but so can other more nefarious characters! 

While I am focusing on many of the grimmer and darker elements here, and this book is definitely a grimdark novel, I do want to say that Tinsley exhibits a lot of restraint and control. Sometimes authors go way too far in terms of the violence, gore, etc. It even gets to the point sometimes where dark = sexual assault in a gross way. Tinsley does none of that here. There are some squelchy moments in the books, but Tinsley uses them sparingly for maximum effect. The grimness and darkness of this story comes more from the sense of dread Tinsley cultivates. It also comes from Tinsley’s emphasis on the plight of the working and underclasses; Tinsey vividly paints the slop and oppression of those not in power , and class relations are a major theme throughout the novel. 

If you have already read We Men of Ash and Shadow, be ready for a very different reading experience with The Hand that Casts the Bone. I still really liked this second book, but in very different ways than I liked the first one. This book felt a lot bigger in terms of its world and politics than the first book. We spend a lot of time outside of D’Orsee with new POV characters (some new to the series, others characters we came to know in the previous book!). Therefore, while We Men was very much rooted in the relationship between Vanguard and Tarryn, this book is much more about the larger global politics and power grabs that are going on. There are, admittedly, some pros and cons with this shift in perspective and scope. On the good end, there were some really awesome payoffs for things that Tinsley started in We Men. However, on the downside this means that we spend a lot less time with Vanguard and Tarryn in this book. I particularly felt that Tarryn got the short end of the stick here; he was the most fascinating character from We Men, but plays a pretty minor role here. Maybe it was just me, but I kind of got the feeling that Tinsley didn’t know how to incorporate Tarryn into the larger politics that were shifting the main focus of the narrative. None of these elements ruined the book for me, but they did throw me off at first. I also want to note that there is a confrontation between Vanguard and Tarryn that was one of the best and intense scenes in a fantasy novel I have read! 

The other major change is that the POVs are a bit more…stationary? If you read We Men then you probably already know that Tinsley was very loose with the POV shifts; a POV could shift from one sentence to the next with little indication. This didn’t bother me at all, but I know it bothered a lot of other readers. Those abrupt shifts in POV don’t really happen in The Hand that Casts the Bone

The end of the book shakes everything up and radically changes the status quo. Tinsley really didn’t hold back in allowing the plot and characters to push forward in many exciting ways. I asked Tinsley on Twitter a while back how many more books we should expect, and she said (at the time) she was planning on one or two more in the Vanguard series. I will definitely join the ride for how many every books are left! 

Concluding Thoughts:

Another entertaining entry in Tinsley’s gaslamp grimdark series, this book expands the city of D’Orsee and beyond. Tinsley’s prose continues to vividly illustrate the grit and grime of an oppressed population and a city on the precipice of revolution. Highly recommended for all fans of gritty and grimy fantasy with complicated characters and politics.

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My name is Nathan and I'm currently getting my Ph.D. in archaeology in the US, but in my freetime I absolutely love reading any kind of fantasy book (and watching way too much TV). So I guess you could say that during the day I like to escape into the past and in the evening I like to escape into other worlds! Review requests can be sent to You can also find me on twitter (@nathan_reviews) and TikTok (nathans_fantasy_reviews).

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