Reading the Bones

Sheila Finch

1998 Nebula Award winner – Best Novella: “Reading the Bones”
2001 Locus Online Recommended Reading List

A struggling linguist, a sheltered debutante, and a strangely silent child are running for their lives, trapped in the violent confluence of three species, only one of which is human. This novella of the fan-favorite Xenolinguist series is a fast-paced, gripping exploration of cross-cultural communication.


Reading the Bones

by Sheila Finch

ISBN: 1892391082

Published: 2003

Available Format(s): Trade Paperback and eBooks

A struggling linguist, a sheltered debutante, and a strangely silent child are running for their lives, trapped in the violent confluence of three species, only one of which is human.

The Xenolinguist stories are fast-paced, gripping explorations of cross-cultural communication as well as perennial fan favorites. The Nebula Award–winning novella Reading the Bones has now been expanded to novel length, following xenolinguist Ries Danyo and sisters Lita and Jilan Patel to their pivotal roles in shaping the future of the Frehti.

“This short novel is expanded from one of her stories, a Nebula Award–winning novella, and the result is her best novel to date.”
SF Chronicle

Reading the Bones [the novella] combines the best elements of the previous Xenolinguist stories. From the theoretical and abstract elements of linguistics to the characteristically brutal and savage violence marking several of the earlier pieces, all emotionally and artistically capped by the powerful denouement involving the redemption of the main character, Ries Danyo.”
—David Truesdale

Sheila Finch is the author of more than seven books, including Reading the Bones, Infinity’s Web, and Birds. She is the winner of a Nebula Award and Compton Crook Award. She studied Medieval Literature and Linguistics at IndianaUniversity. Finch is recently retired from her post as a creative writing teacher at El Camino College but continues to work with her former students.

Praise for The Guild of Xenolinguists

“Making excellent use of her graduate work in linguistics, Finch creates the Guild of Xenolinguists (later called lingsters), a formal organization devoted to translating the languages of other worlds. Much as Asimov did with the Three Laws of Robotics, Finch creatively examines the conflicts stemming from adherence to the guild’s strict rules.”
Publishers Weekly

  “This is an insightful look at the real experience of going into space, an adventure gritty and wondrous.”
—Gregory Benford

“Finch appropriates cyberpunk notions for feminist ends, and the resultant mix alters both feminist science fiction and cyberpunk.”
—Robin Roberts, author of A New Species

Visit the Sheila Finch website.



Someone was trying to tell him something.

Ries Danyo wallowed round on the bench, peering through the tavern’s thick haze, eyes unfocused by too much zyth. The sitar he didn’t remember setting on the bench beside him crashed to the floor. The gourd cracked as it hit stone.

A male Freh sat beside him, the alien’s almost lipless mouth moving urgently. The Freh had a peculiar swirling design tattooed from his forehead down the nose, and one of his hands was wrapped in a filthy rag. Ries stared at dark blood seeping through the folds. The alien spoke again, the pitch of his voice writhing like smoke.

Ries didn’t catch a word.

Sometimes he wondered if the native vocalizations on this planet should even be called anything as advanced as language — especially the impoverished version the Freh males used. Not that his human employers were interested in actually having a conversation with these aliens. Just as well. He wasn’t the lingster he’d been just five years ago.

The native liquor had given him a pounding headache and he needed to sleep it off.

The Freh’s unbandaged, bird-claw hand shook his arm, urging him to pay attention. Dizziness took him. For a moment, he drifted untethered in a matrix of protolanguage, unable to grasp either the alien’s Frehti or his own native Inglis to form a reply, a sensation closely resembling what he remembered of the condition lingsters called interface but without the resolution.

A harsh burst of noise battered his eardrums, booming and echoing around the low-roofed tavern. He squinted, trying to clear his clouded vision. Two male Freh capered across the floor, arms windmilling. He started to rise —

And was knocked down off his chair and dragged behind the overturned table.

Thuds. Screams. The crowded tavern erupted into shrill pandemonium. Freh voices ululating at the upper end of the scale. Something else — a deeper footnote that brought the hairs up on his neck.

He tried to stand. The room cartwheeled dizzily around him. A pungent odor filled his nostrils — a stench like rotten flesh, decaying fungus. He had a sudden image of nightmare beasts rutting. The meal he’d just eaten rushed back up into his throat.

Something slammed into his back, toppling him again. He struggled out from underneath the weight. A pudgy juvenile Freh, shapeless in layers of thick, stinking rags, stared down at him for a moment, then scrambled away hastily. Ries sat on the floor in the wreckage, his head throbbing, his mind blank.

Tongues of flame flickered across the low ceiling; acrid smoke filled his lungs and made him cough. The coughing caused him to retch again. He doubled over.

“Talker.” The alien with a bloody hand shook his arm. “Talker. Danger.”

The sound of Frehti was like birdsong. Trying to make sense of such warbling, twittering, and chirruping — problematic at the best of times — was impossible in his present state. He got maybe one Frehti word in every two.

He closed his eyes against the stinging smoke, the piercing screeches. Maybe I really am dying, he thought.

No exaggeration. Maybe not tonight, or tomorrow, or even a month from now. But he sensed his body succumbing to death little by little, felt the slow tightening of zyth’s grip around his heart. He had a sudden vision — a splinter view of green foothills and sapphire lake — that closed down as rapidly as it opened. If he didn’t give it up, he wouldn’t live long enough to see Earth again.

Then he was aware of the bump and scrape of being hauled over benches, broken crockery, other bodies in the way.

He was too tired to resist.