Review: Jeff Smith’s “Bone”—Book 5: “Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border” Finally Gives Our Starring Protagonist a Role of His Own
Odd as this may sound, I think “Rock Jaw” was the book that introduced me to “Bone.” If I recall correctly, I’m pretty sure I borrowed and read an individual “Rock Jaw” full-color volume from the library before ever embarking on the entire “Bone” saga. I don’t remember how I came about reading it, why I decided to read it, or even if it was a book I found or my dad borrowed for me. All I remember is the colored cover of this volume staring me in the face before I ever read the entire saga.
Within the grand scheme of the “Bone” series, where does “Rock Jaw” fit in? We’ve had some chapters that are more integral than others, some that are better paced, and a few that don’t fit as snugly into the overarching plot.
With some digging, maybe we can figure out how “Rock Jaw” works its way into the larger “Bone” mythos.
“Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border”
The name for this volume is derived from a new character Smith introduces to his book. As Fone Bone and Smiley Bone lead their new Rat Creature pal Bartleby away from Barrelhaven in search of his home, they’re driven onward by attacking Rat Creatures. Hightailing it deep into the Eastern Mountains, the Bones and Bartleby are cornered and captured by a giant mountain lion named Roque Ja, whom they continually mispronounce “Rock Jaw.” From here, the Bones and Bartleby engage in a perilous adventure that sees them face not only Rock Jaw, but Kingdok as well. Combine this with an attempt to keep several orphaned animal children safe, and you’ve got a crazy story on your hands.
What’s incredibly nice about this particular chapter is that you don’t have to worry about following to many distinct plot threads. The entire chapter revolves around the adventures of our trio here; no jumping between characters, no peering into Barrelhaven to see what Thorn and the others are doing. Smith’s vision becomes singular here, and as a result, we get some good characterization from Fone and Smiley.
The shaping of Fone Bone was brought to a somewhat grinding halt partway through Book 2. From “The Great Cow Race” onward, at right about the moment he retrieved honey for Thorn, Fone Bone has been resigned to a “lovesick puppy” status I’ve touched on in previous posts. While Smith began “Bone” with Fone Bone’s wanderings and a clear focus on him as a central protagonist, and while Fone Bone has clearly served as the “everyman” through whose eyes we also perceive the world of the Valley, his characterization has become a bit stagnant. His intentions and actions have been funneled through his feelings for Thorn.
That’s not a completely awful thing, necessarily, as never once does Smith make him out to be anything less than genuine. At heart, Fone Bone is a wholly considerate individual…BUT, therein lies an issue. Because his heart lies with Thorn, and because he’s SO considerate, all of his characterization stems from that. “Rock Jaw” really allows Fone Bone to come into his own as a character and begin to make himself into a kind of leader Phoney really never chooses to be. The book also highlights a key difference between Fone Bone’s consideration for Thorn vs. his consideration for other family and friends. Fone Bone will follow Thorn to the end of the world to see her happy and fulfilled, but for his family, he will lead them to the edge. Here, he steps up.
Appropriately, then, “Rock Jaw” is filled with moments of treacherous, cliffside danger that Fone Bone must navigate in order to keep Smiley, Bartleby, and the other smaller creatures safe. He does what must be done in order to keep them away from Kingdok and finds solutions in difficult situations.
Smiley’s own characterization is a little harder to decipher here. Though the Bartleby subplot from “The Dragonslayer” felt a little forced upon Smiley to give him something to do (think the gambling planet from “The Last Jedi” that Finn and Rose venture to so they have a “quest” to embark upon), Smith at least continues to run with it. Were this a miniscule plot he introduced and quickly wrapped up, the impact would feel equally as small, if not nonexistent. As it stands, carrying on Smiley’s relationship with his new pet/friend Bartleby is at least a positive aspect to such a shoehorned concept. Out of the three Bone cousins, Smiley has faced virtually no change or conflict so far. But with “Rock Jaw,” Smiley begins to move out from under Phoney’s thumb. The change isn’t all that much—he just “adopts” a Rat Creature and bonds with him really nicely—but it’s an improvement over the bumbling idiot who just did whatever Phoney told him to do because he couldn’t think for himself.
If any character in this book isn’t used quite as well, I’d put my money on Rock Jaw. The self-proclaimed “Master of the Eastern Boarder” is, in concept, a compelling addition to Smith’s mythology. A giant mountain lion who doesn’t want anyone disturbing his realm, Rock Jaw is a neutral character, claiming not to take any side in the conflict between the Rat Creatures or the Dragons. What he claims and what actually happens, however, are two different things. Rock Jaw hopes to bring to the Bones and Bartleby to Kingdok to make sure the Rat Creatures don’t bother him; on the other hand, he also really hates Dragons. Ultimately, his loyalty is to himself.
Interestingly, Rock Jaw says nothing about Dragons vs. Rat Creatures being but a piece in the larger conflict between the Lord of the Locust and, y’know, EVERY HUMAN IN THE ENTIRE VALLEY, but I suppose he could be using discretion. That, or perhaps he doesn’t realize Dragons have gone (literally) undergone. This may be a nod on Smith’s part to the fact this hoity-toity housecat fails to perceive the conflict at large and believes he can remain above it. Having a neutral and potentially ignorant character, especially one so much larger and more powerful than our protagonists, in the midst of this conflict makes for compelling reading. I wish Smith had used Rock Jaw more than he ends up doing in the rest of the series. For now, Rock Jaw’s starring moment comes in a battle against Kingdok, where he ends up tearing out the Rat Creature leader’s tongue.
Boy, past couple of days haven’t been going well for Kingdok, have they?
Rock Jaw could have been a really stirring, powerful new element for Smith’s mythology. But in a volume that also sheds a bit of light on the power of dreams and even a frustratingly accurate guess at the Lord of the Locust’s origin (which is a twist I wish Smith had kept under wraps, as it really means nothing to readers at the moment), I can see why Smith used his pages to juggle a few other pieces of his worldbuilding. Unlike other chapters, fortunately, these tend to flow well together, as we stay with the same characters and the same setting throughout the book.
The only other element I’m not a huge fan of is the “orphaned animal” characters that spring up. Save for a young raccoon introduced earlier, the other animals just pop out of nowhere. As if Fone Bone didn’t have enough on his hands keeping Smiley and Bartleby safe from an enraged mountain lion once they escape his clutches, he also worries about a pack of talking animal kids. For a book that’s already tense and action-packed, I don’t see the need to add even higher stakes, and for a story that’s beginning to get a little more serious and a hint darker, I also don’t see the need to plop in some additional cuteness to even things out. Considering these animals have no impact on the story moving forward, their inclusion here puzzles me. The story would have been better off without them.
Aside from those small qualms, “Rock Jaw: Master of the Eastern Border” is an improvement over some of the books we’ve examined so far. At last, Fone Bone gets the chance to prove himself as a character, and even Smiley’s character becomes ever so slightly rounded. Rock Jaw, though criminally under-used, is still a fascinating inclusion and brings more depth to Smith’s world. I’d say “Rock Jaw” is the tensest of all the books so far, fraught with action and peril that feels it has genuine stakes to it. In a world where people go on and on about the impending rise of the Lord of the Locust and the threat he would pose only if his plans come to fruition, I love how Smith delivers immediate danger and peril to satiate our palates.