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Bone Song cover

Darkness permeates Tristopolis, a city of two-hundred storey structures which scrape the purple sky. Beneath the foundations are extensive catacombs, a pneumatic public transport system, and the City Energy Authority. There, at the heart of the city, necroflux energy is tapped by replaying memories trapped in the microstructures of the bones of the dead. Stated baldly, this makes no obvious sense—but neither does the usual hand waving SF uses to explain faster than light travel, and by describing the dread atmosphere of the reactor chambers in grim detail early in the book, Meaney sets the tone of Bone Song very effectively. Tristopolis is a city powered by bones, and many of its citizens will go to the reactors after they die. But not all of them.

The first eighty pages of Bone Song are, effectively, a bravura novella, in which Meaney defines his protagonist and drops him in over his head. Lieutenant Donal Riordan is charged by his boss, the Police Commissioner, with protecting an opera diva during her visit to Tristopolis. There is a conspiracy to kill gifted artists with the intent of trafficking in their bones, which can be tapped for the essence of their genius. Riordan is the archetypal hard working, honest cop. His background and upbringing—even his name—are designed to evoke the image of an ordinary policeman on the streets of Chicago or Gotham. Riordan grew up in an orphanage and rents a tiny apartment far from the centre of the city; it is clear that his job is his life. He is immune to corruption, but he soon learns fear and failure as his protection duty goes disastrously wrong.

Having drawn the reader in, Meaney gives Riordan a way out which allows the pace to slow, the setting time to develop, and the plot threads time to tangle. Riordan is recruited into Commander Laura Steele's task force, which is investigating the Black Circle, as they name the bone traffickers. Just has he is from the mean streets, she is from the glittering towers and mansions of society. Steele is an equally dedicated police officer and her perfection has Riordan falling for her immediately, a fall not slowed when he discovers that she is a zombie. This world's zombies are cold and clean, their chilly black blood apparently maintaining the dead body rather than simply slowing decay as is the case for Neal Asher's similarly high-tech reifications. Nevertheless, zombies are amongst the unliving, a class which many natural humans don't believe deserve human rights. Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels also make this direct transfer of the arguments of racism, and in both cases the reader is meant to recognise the signifier and identify the subjects of the substitute "ism" as worthy of equality. Meaney, at least, makes an effort to present the zombies and wraiths in the police department as different but equal members of the team, although his major villains are uniformly human.

Commander Steele's team suspects the commissioner is one of these villains and that Riordan had been doomed to fail. Some of them also think that Riordan is the commissioner's spy. Meaney manages this suspicion well, building tension through the incomplete sharing of (mis)information within the team as Riordan's pursuit leads to the neighbouring state of Illurium. Riordan's sojourn in another city gives Meaney the chance to define Tristopolis better by contrast; in Illurium, Riordan sees true night and starlight for the first time, and we realise that the sun has never been mentioned in Tristopolis. He is also given the chance to make amends for his failure, with a set piece which recapitulates the opening section.

Meaney puts considerable effort into salting his book with gothic objects such as "a golden clock formed of interlocking metal bones" (p. 13) or "black iron-and-quartz chandeliers" (p. 101). These re-inforce the dark atmosphere of the book as does the use of wraiths to move lifts and luggage carts, and the fact that donut shops sell Tarantula Creams and coffee in snakeskin cups. Unfortunately, such tropes as beat cops at the donut shop jolts us out of the otherworldy setting rather than grounding the book in the familiar police procedural. Worse, after all the careful build up of momentum and shaping of the story, the last fifteen pages are sawn-off. There seems to have been a very late decision to open up the story for a sequel and the showdown which might have been the climax of the book feels hurried. This is frustrating when the book had been so well structured.

Although the book draws heavily on the police procedural and shares elements with any number of recent Sex and Vampire novels, it retains the sensibilities of science fiction. The combination has resulted in Bone Song being presented as the type specimen of a new field—Dark SF. The purple cover is adorned with skulls and skyscrapers and the message "Welcome to Death's City." The text is also scattered with the artefacts of Horror but the rational approach of the protagonist is never entirely defeated. While horrible things happen, this is not Horror; while there are mysteries, the style of the novel gives the impression that this world has a solid, explicable foundation. Whether Meaney will choose to explain that foundation would appear to be a matter for sequels.

Duncan Lawie recently moved to the Kent coast and now thinks he will have time to read all the books on his shelves. His work also appears in the Zone.

Duncan Lawie has been reviewing SF for half as long as he has been reading it, although there was a quiet period during two years as an Arthur C. Clarke Award judge. His reviews also appear in the British Science Fiction Association's Vector magazine.
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