Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bone Song and Black Blood by John Meaney (Donal Riordan series)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008–2009. Reprinted with permission.

Bone Song is the first volume of a new series from author John Meaney, a three-time nominee for the British Science Fiction Award. Originally published in the UK in 2007, this review focuses on the 2008 US edition (Meaney gives examples of the extensive rewriting required on his weblog).

Do you feel the song? Do you hear the bones?

Quintember 6607 — Lieutenant Donal Riordan of the Tristopolis police force has just been assigned bodyguard duty by his commissioner: the protection of a true "diva," opera singer Maria daLivnova, because someone has been killing performers and stealing their bodies. (The bones of dead artists allow the possessor to see the world the way the artist did — a prospect that is both irresistible and addictive.)

Tristopolis is truly a "city of the dead." Forty-six hundred years in the future, evidence of mortality is everywhere: "Death" stands in for most common curses ("What the Death?"), with "Thanatos" handy for names taken in vain ("For Thanatos's sake!"). The city's electricity is even produced by the burning of corpses in a "necroflux reactor."

This is not surprising, given the high relative percentage of walking dead in the general population. For example, Laura Steele, the commander of a federal task force investigating an underworld collective, is a zombie who's been unusually successful with her second chance at existence (called "paralife"). Her partner, Xalia, is a wraith whose near-invisiblity hinders her struggle to be treated equally. (Riordan even begins a sexual relationship with Steele, and much is made of their difference in skin temperatures — he practically burns her with his 98.6 degrees, and she is frigid, but only literally.)

The details of Tristopolis are so engagingly described throughout that it scarcely matters that the story isn't strong enough to fill 370 pages. But Meaney keeps the pages turning with action and suspense well delivered within his varied selection of genres: Bone Song should be popular with fans of nearly every genre: from gothic and horror to science fiction and fantasy to crime and mystery. There's even a tragic romance! And he, of course, leaves some loose threads for the expected sequels.

If Meaney is trying to be everything to everyone, he's done a remarkable job. Don't count on predictability, however. Meaney also makes brave, and often surprising, choices with his characters, including one particularly startling event near the end that will likely upset some readers. Bone Song is a flawed but strong beginning to a series that I was hoping would simply get better as it went along.

Unfortunately, its sequel Black Blood (at least the part I was able to get through), was a huge disappointment. (Readers who have not yet read Bone Song should not read any further as the mere act of summarizing the sequel reveals the "particularly startling event" I just mentioned.)

Donal is on the trail of a killer — his own. Alderman Kinley Finross was responsible not only for Donal's death but that of Laura, his love, and now Laura's zombie heart beats inside Donal's chest, keeping him alive (or at least undead, since breathing is now an act of will) until he can locate Finross and get revenge.

I was very excited about Black Blood as it seems even darker than Bone Song, since that was primarily a police procedural in plot, and this one at least starts out as pure vendetta. Sadly, it took me months just to get through the first 50 pages. The combination of dark suspense and gothic horror in Meaney's highly original world was novel enough the first time around to get through the flaws in the story. But this time it felt like the author was more in love with Tristopolis than his character's pursuit. He spends pages just describing what's around his protagonist while he walks from place to place, cracking jokes and only occasionally moving forward with his goal.

Eventually, I simply lost interest — if the author's not interested in seeing justice served, why should I be? However, I did skip ahead to the ending, and those who do make it through Black Blood will be rewarded with a darkly hilarious cliffhanger ending that leads right into the third book (current working title: White Bones).


David Cranmer said...

It sounds like an excellent read. Not my normal cup of tea but your review may tip me if I see it in the store.

Craig Clarke said...

Yeah, it wasn't normally anything I would pick up either -- I'm not a big fan of fantasy of any kind -- but the combination of elements intrigued me too much to resist.

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