Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bone Song

Perhaps it is just coincidence, but I seem to be on a run of world-building novels of late. Bone Song, by John Meaney, offers a fascinating world for exploration with very little explanation of how it got to be that way or ho it actually works. The unnamed country on this unnamed world uses necro-energy from the dead as its primary power source. Detective Donal Riordan walks us through this world in a fairly noir fashion through the first quarter of the book, as he pursues the goal of protecting an opera singer from a conspiracy of killers. As he prepares for The Diva's visit (yes, that's what everyone calls her), we watch him wander through the unnamed city and talk to its elite. We discover that rather than elevators, for example, wraiths pick up and lift or lower passengers up and down shafts. When Riordan goes to a power plant to talk to a bigwig about his plans to protect the Diva, he is given a tour of the engines that run the city; we learn that the generators draw the energy of the dead from their bones and that energy is somehow converted to the power to run the city.

It poses an interesting chicken-and-egg question, since Meaney also takes the time to describe the city in its gothic darkness and the sort of guilty self-aware pall that hangs over the city as its inhabitants go through what would otherwise appear to be a normal urban life. Riordan jogs daily…through crypts and catacombs underneath the city streets. Buildings are protected by sentinels…near-sentient wolves that recognize threats and act on them. Meaney takes the time to describe the details and then subtly change them so that everything takes on a macabre cast. Even Riordan is somewhat spooked by the setting he lives in.

But after the set-up of the novel, and after Riordan's mission goes astonishingly wrong, the novel moves from a noir-ish tone to one of police procedural. Riordan is picked up by a task force investigating similar crimes, and it is there he meets his new commander, Laura Steele, an achingly beautiful woman he immediately falls in love with, only to find out after he consummates his passion with her that she is a zombie. The passion between them is fierce and so we are that much more taken aback when he discovers that Steele is really dead but kept alive through magical/mechanical means. Meanwhile, the various members of the task force spread out through the city to pursue their own facets of the case. The setting remains otherworldly, and the reader is given more tantalizing hints about this world through the different viewpoints, but the movement of the novel is one of a conspiracy theory being played out.

And here's the thing: fascinating as those initial passages are, the book becomes a thrill ride which I found really difficult to remove myself from. With widely varied personalities that feel based somewhat on the clich├ęs of the police forces seen in mainstream entertainment but are actually nicely developed with room for much more, the novel provides nothing terribly predictable but all ridiculously fun. As the officers get more and more immersed in the conspiracy they are chasing, we dive deeper and deeper into this world until the alienness seems normal and unremarkable until characters begin to travel to other countries. And then things get even more strange.

Meaney's writing is not particularly powerful, but the story-telling in Bone Song is undeniable. To transport the reader from shocked witness to this world's strange make-up to accomplice in trying to solve its mysteries is a delightful feat. And even when events seem decided, those last two pages hold a masterful twist that I just did not see coming and which compels me to wait impatiently for the paperback version of the next book to come out.

If you like thrillers, you want to read this book. If you enjoy gothic fantasy, or even horror, this book is for you. If you appreciate solid world-building, you must read Bone Song. Meaney is now on my list of authors to look out for.

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