Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Review of Bone Song by John Meaney

Bone SongJohn Meaney is known for his work in the science fiction field, most notably the Nulapeiron sequence (Paradox, Context, Resolution).  They are well-worth reading for their combination of an imaginative and unusual setting, scientific speculations, and furious action.  With Bone Song (Hardcover, Paperback ,Kindle), he enters the genre of dark fantasy, and yet also retains the virtues of the science fiction writer along the way.  The follow-up, Black Blood (Dark Blood in the United Kingdom), came out earlier this year.

Bone Song is set in Tristopolis, a city covered by a perpetually dark, purple skies that rain mercury, inhabited by humans both living and undead, as well as by incorporeal beings called wraiths.  Its technology is a bizarre amalgam of machinery and the supernatural, kept running by underground “necroflux” reactors that generate power from the bones of the dead.

The main character of the story is Lieutenant Donal Riordan, an officer in the Tristopolis police.  He is assigned to the task of protecting an international opera star making a stop in Tristopolis.  The energies of the thoughts, feelings, and memories of humans during life become embedded in their bones, and the bones of great artists are prized for the ecstatic experiences they can provide.  A mysterious organization has begun murdering famous artists and stealing their bodies, and the visiting diva may be their next target.

What starts as an assignment to protect a single woman soon expands up into something much bigger as Riordan is recruited into a special federal task force after narrowly surviving a sorcerous attack on his mind.  There he meets Xelia, a free wraith, and Commander Laura Steele, the group’s undead leader.  They are dedicated to pursuing the Black Circle, a secret society with an interest in the bones of the dead, agents all over the world, and members in the highest levels of Tristopolis society.

I greatly enjoyed Bone Song.  John Meaney creates a truly fascinating and bizarre setting in Tristopolis.  The book’s tone is interesting and a bit atypical.  The mood of Tristopolis is relentlessly dark and sinister, hanging oppressively over everything, and the premise of the plot is quite grim.  However, the story itself, with its combination of mystery and fast action, is intensely energizing and feels almost exuberant at times.  The book does a nice job of being extremely dark in setting and premise, and sometimes quite sad, without feeling dreary or depressing.  I don’t see that sort of contrast very often, but Meaney does it well.

Much of this comes from Meaney’s style of writing, which gives events, and especially rapid or physically intensive events, a tremendous sense of raw immediacy.  In the book’s more intense sections, Riordan’s actions and thoughts often felt as if they were being poured directly into me, without the mediation of words.  As in the Nulapeiron trilogy, Meaney’s own background in the martial arts definitely shows, not only in his technical knowledge but in the way he evokes a state in which events move faster than the fully conscious mind can keep up with.

The setting is very imaginative, and straddles typical genre distinctions in an interesting way.  The supernatural (at least by real-world standards) is so ubiquitous in Tristopolis society that much of it feels more like technology.  Necroflux energy harvested from the memories and emotions of the dead powers the city like electricity.  Wraiths are bound to complex machines like automobiles and elevators to give animation and at least limited capacity for thought.  The newly dead can be revived as the undead through a procedure that has supernatural elements but resembles surgery more than anything else.  Even victims of sorcerous mental attacks undergo medical treatment and rehabilitation analogous to real-world physical therapy.  Thus, while Bone Song is dark fantasy, in many ways it could also be described as science fiction set in an animistic universe.

I would strongly recommend Bone Song for anyone who likes intense, action-heavy stories or unusual worldbuilding.  I think it could appeal to a number of different groups: fantasy fans looking for something different from the usual high fantasy settings, science fiction fans who want to see a science fiction-influenced take on a world with some very different underlying principles, and perhaps people who like modern/urban fantasy (e.g. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books) and want a story in a more distant and unusual setting.  John Meaney has a great talent for truly creative imaginary worlds, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

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