British author John Meaney is primarily known as a writer of hard science fiction. In his latest offering however, he changes tack a bit and delivers a novel in Bone Song that is described as blending “gritty futuristic noir with gothic fantasy.” A fairly accurate description, although personally I would categorize the book as urban fantasy because the backdrop is definitely present day, the main character is a police lieutenant, and the story is driven by a murder investigation that features plenty of familiar police procedural elements and subplots like a romance, a traitor, and obvious red herrings, not to mention the supernatural aspects.
But, Bone Song is not just your average urban fantasy novel right. The setting is actually quite unique. On the surface, Tristopolis may seem like any normal mega-city with its police force, hospitals, subways, taxis, and celebrities, but in reality Tristopolis is like some kind of demented alternate universe where everything is slightly askew. For instance, the weeks are eighteen days long, the days twenty-five hours, the sky is purple, the architecture is neo-gothic with a taste for skulls, and instead of taking God’s name in vain you curse by saying death, Thanatos or Hades. And that’s just the minor stuff. You also have talking deathwolves who are a form of security, necrofusion reactors which power the city using the bones of the dead, wraiths that can be bonded to just about anything from elevators to morphing motorcycles, Bone Listeners who can divine a dead person’s memories by listening to their bones, and plenty more including zombies, mages, witches and so on. In other words, Tristopolis is a place where magic, science, and the necrotic all coexist…kind of like something Tim Burton would cook up — I’m thinking especially of Corpse Bride or The Nightmare Before Christmas — with JK Rowling and Edgar Allen Poe assisting. If that sounds weird, it is but I couldn’t think of anything else. I mean the gothic vibe obviously evokes Burton and the emphasis on death Poe, but the application of magic in a contemporary backdrop reminded me a lot of Harry Potter, even though Meaney is much better at it. Specifically, the author uses his degrees in physics and computer science to make such concepts as the Bone Listeners’ stochastic predictive processes, the thaumaturgical method of Image-Inclined Hexing, wraith frequencies, etc., seem real rather than a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. In summary, I absolutely loved visiting Tristopolis and my favorite part of the book was discovering all that the city had to offer.
As far as the rest of the book including the story, the characters and Mr. Meaney’s delivery, I wasn’t quite as impressed. For starters, the plot is pretty standard fare if you’ve read or seen any police procedural fiction — there are politics involved in finding clues and getting warrants, diversionary tactics to keep the reader from guessing who the real traitor is, and so on. In fact, the only parts of the story that I would describe as unconventional were the paranormal methods that the cops used in their investigation and the killers they were hunting down. Meanwhile, the characters — which include main protagonist Lt. Donal Riordan, Commander Laura Steele, her task force (Xalia, Viktor Harman, Alexa, Harald Hammersen), and various secondary players — are all pretty ordinary. Sure, Xalia is a freewraith, Laura a zombie, and Donal can hear bones sing, but they don’t really offer anything beyond their initial makeup. Part of that has to do with the way the characters were written. Initially, Donal was the primary point-of-view, but then about 150 pages in, the narrative starts regularly switching between multiple perspectives. While this helps to increase the pacing, actual character development suffers, particularly that of Donal and Laura who were pretty important pieces in the book, especially considering how Bone Song ended.
Speaking of which, I really disliked the novel’s conclusion. Not so much the cliffhanger, which immediately brings up a couple of highly interesting dilemmas that Donal will have to face in the sequel, but just the suddenness of it which I thought could have been fleshed out more. Other than that, I wasn’t convinced by the attraction between Donal and Laura which felt unrealistic, and I thought the subplot involving a gross misunderstanding between task force members was weak and unnecessary.
Overall, John Meaney’s Bone Song is a difficult novel to rate. On the one hand, the sheer invention of Tristopolis, its inhabitants and the familiar yet distinctive society is worth experiencing on its own. Then again, the conventional plotting, stereotypical characters and uneven execution is disappointing. Still, Bone Song is entertaining, goes by quickly, and offers a lot of fresh and intriguing ideas which is why I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the sequel, Black Blood.
The Tristopolis books (Donal Connor) — (2007-2009) Black Blood was published as Dark Blood in the UK. Publisher: Lieutenant Donal Connor has been given the most bizarre of new cases. Four famous stage performers have died in recent months, thee of them in state capitals within Transifica, the fourth in far Zurinam. And now the idolised Diva, maria deLivnova is coming to Tristopolis. Donal’s boss is determined that nothing like this is ever to happen in his city. Connor is to have anything he needs as long the Diva lives. And so begins a dark investigation through a world where corpses give up their pyschic energy in the massive necrofulx generators that power the city, where gargoyles talk, where wraiths work in slavery, a world of the dead where corruption is alive. This is an extraordinary SF novel set in alternate universe quite unlike any imagined in SF before; a universe where magic and the supernatural and the undead are given a scientific rationale and hoorfyingly plausible rationale. The novel’s setting, Tristopolis, is the ultimate noir city; an immense baroque creation of haunted stone skyscrapers, black metal and city-wide catacombs. Its hero Donal Connor is immensely likeable and easy to identify with. Even once he’s dead.
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