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Friday, February 22, 2008

"Bone Song" by John Meaney

Official John Meaney Website
Order “Bone SongHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Reviews of “Bone Song” via SFFWorld, Strange Horizons + SF Site

Because of his novels “To Hold Infinity” (shortlisted for the 1999 BSFA for Best Novel), the critically acclaimed Nulapeiron Sequence—“Paradox” (2001 BSFA shortlist), “Context”, “Resolution”—and various short stories, British author John Meaney is primarily known as a writer of hard science fiction. In his latest offering however, John changes tack a bit and delivers a novel in “Bone Song”—first released in the UK March 2007 via Gollancz/Orion—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…

You see the definition for ‘urban fantasy’ can vary quite a bit, but the current trend seems to involve a contemporary setting; a wise-cracking protagonist who is usually some sort of private investigator or detective; a plot that is part mystery, part drama and part supernatural fantasy; and there’s usually a sequel or two. So based on that criterion, “Bone Song” is pretty much an urban fantasy novel. I mean the backdrop is definitely present day, the main character—while not a PI or detective—is a police lieutenant which is close enough, 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. Plus, the cliffhanger ending guarantees a sequel—“Dark Blood”—which is actually already out in the UK. In short, “Bone Song” is just your average urban fantasy novel right? Not quite.

What I failed to mention is that the setting is actually quite unique. On the surface Tristopolis may seem like any normal mega-city with its police force, hospitals, subways, taxis, celebrities, et cetera, 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 powers 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 John’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 & 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 & Laura which felt unrealistic, and felt the subplot involving a gross misunderstanding between task force members was weak and unnecessary…

Overall, John Meaney’sBone 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 can be disappointing. Still, “Bone Song” is entertaining, goes by quickly, and offers a lot of fresh & intriguing ideas which is why I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the sequel…


daydream said...

Too bad the world isn't perfect to offer perfect. I think that there is some balancing in the whole book, not that I read. The whole energy of the author has gone to create this original world and the characters are a bit left out, but well I still think I will read it.

Robert said...

Like I said, the world itself is worth experience all on its own :) As far as the characters, I'm sure we'll see more development in "Dark Blood" and if there are any other sequels...

SQT said...

I doubt I'd buy this in hardback, but I'd check it out in paperback.

gav (NextRead) said...

It sounds like there was enough to pull a reader through and leaving them with wanting to return.

As long as there is something compelling about a book I'll usually give it a go. I'll have to hunt this out in paperback.

Kimberly Swan said...

Sounds like my kind of read. With any luck the characters will grow to match the amazing world they live in for book 2. :)

Anonymous said...

I am a big J. Meaney fan - Paradox is one of the best sf novels I've ever read, the sequels adequate but devolving into "stop the evil that devours all" which I rarely enjoy, though the ending of Resolution was brilliant and redeemed the series to a large extent - so I bought Bone Song when it was published in the UK, and I was somewhat disappointed. The world is indeed unique and there are flashes of brilliance here and there but too many cliches, plot holes and a telegraphed ending to a large extent, make me reluctant to get Dark Blood now from the UK, though depending on reviews I may.


Robert said...

I haven't seen any reviews of "Dark Blood" yet, but I try to avoid reviews in general until I've read a book ;)

I definitely need to check out John's other stuff though!

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