I concluded my review of John Meaney's previous novel, Bone Song, by wondering whether a sequel would explicate the underlying structure of its setting, confirming the work as SF, or undercut that structure in a manner which rendered the novels horror. Dark Blood is that sequel, but Meaney chooses to focus on storytelling rather than worldbuilding. The story Meaney tells is a cop story. Strictly, it's a cop's story, as Police Lieutenant Donal Riordan pursues justice for the murder of Laura Steele, his girlfriend and former boss. Or is "murder" the right word? She was a zombie already. Perhaps Riordan is truly seeking revenge for his own death: he was shot as her existence ended, but revived with her heart, making him a zombie in turn.
Riordan has inherited Laura's wealth as well as her heart, giving him a new independence, though his sense of duty and desire for justice ensure that he isn't about to retire from the Tristopolis police force. However, as the novel opens it is unclear whether he will be allowed to pursue the powerful, corrupt group known as the Black Circle who are responsible for his death and much else. Riordan discovers that to succeed he can no longer afford his "ordinary cop" disgust with politics. This is true of anyone pushing their way into middle management—political skills are important to run a team well—but the greater lesson Riordan learns is that political skills can manipulate a whole society. The tool which the political classes make most use of here, as in Bone Song, is prejudice. Riordan is reminded that "legislation is subject to change. It's a human artefact, after all, not a force of nature" (p. 164) by a member of a party which plans to end all rights for non-humans.
We know this plan is wrong, within the context of the series, because our protagonist has been abruptly converted into 'one of them' and we are still inside his head. We know that the essence of Riordan has survived the change despite reminders of the external differences in the man. Riordan was established in the first novel as someone who asks hard questions of himself. Alongside his new consideration of politics he is gradually learning about his zombie nature. In this universe zombies are the walking dead, but their creation is more down to surgery than voodoo. Their chilled "dark blood" is pumped through their bodies by hearts recharged from an electrical source. They also have a level of detachment which gives Riordan greater access to the "architecture of his mind" (p. 110). He is now able to assess subliminal information from his senses and to deconstruct memories and feelings. Equally, he learns he is capable of much greater control over his voice and actions, giving him the ability to manipulate those to whom he speaks. As Riordan discovers these changes and looks at the zombies around him, he recognises that he is still on a path, not yet fully zombie in his mental outlook. There is an implication here that Riordan could use his greater powers to his own benefit, to become a totally asocial being like the Thirteens in Richard Morgan's Black Man but Meaney does not follow the question as far as Morgan. Here, the minorities are wholly victims and any special powers Riordan may have will be used wholly for truth and justice—and revenge.
Whilst Riordan is navigating the corridors of power, and his own mind, more visceral events are developing. The Police Commissioner uses the remnants of Laura Steele's team for Black Ops. This puts each of them in the spotlight, enabling Meaney to develop their characters as they investigate the new phone company in town. This may sound rather dry, but the telephone lines are made from eviscerated human nerve fibre. More worryingly, given that this is the dark, grim city of Tristopolis, the new, indigo phones are making people happy and providing a better service. I wondered at first whether this was going to be a light-hearted subplot, perhaps riffing on the introduction of the first commercial competitor to British Telecom a couple of decades back—a competitor whose corporate colour happened to be bright blue. Meaney features purples and blacks in his text to shape our visualisation of his setting, making such colour seem the pretext for humour. He also uses light and shade well in his writing, with a deftness of touch that allows the work to move readily from assassinations and beatings to the camaraderie of the ready room. However, it was not to be: the phone company is soon frying the brains of Riordan's trusted colleagues. As well as, ultimately, raising the threat level, this subplot offers the reader clues which Riordan is going to need later, ably building the tension until the separate threads are pulled together.
The additional viewpoints are also necessary to balance Riordan's introspection. The political attack on zombies becomes a personal attack on Riordan. In fact, everything is personal for Riordan, so it is rather fortunate that, in the end, he can face everything down by getting his buddies together and running about with guns shooting things. This might seem an inelegant solution when his enemies are powerful Dark Mages, but a well-aimed "hexzooka" would seem to be adequate against magical powers. Meaney makes this almost completely convincing because he writes his action scenes so well. I complained about how suddenly the last book finished, and was on the point of making the same comment here until I realised that throughout the book the action is concentrated into short, intense episodes. Even so, the baddies are distracted from finishing off the goodies by the ancient curse of masterminds everywhere—plot revelation. This is useful in confirming the thesis which Riordan has built, but doesn't really indicate what this version of the Black Circle is going to get out of their dastardly deeds. Maybe it is enough to be Chaotic Evil aligned.
Over the course of two books, Meaney has successfully integrated the tricks of horror with the techniques of crime and SF. The surface of this series is horror, but it is only skin deep. These books have the comfort of rationality. The flesh of Dark Blood is that of a detective novel. This can be difficult to manage convincingly in science fiction, but the hard work of building the universe in the first book is repaid here: we now have a conception of normality within the setting so we can seek clues ourselves and attempt to get ahead of Riordan. As with any good detective novel, flicking back through the pages shows how many clues were there. The bones of the books, meanwhile, confirm a scientifictionally coherent universe within this endeavour. More than the clues for detective readers, I got a great deal of pleasure out of the hints for astronomy fans, of which I will say no more to allow like-minded readers their own enjoyment.
And there is more to come, with plenty of swearing and action too, given the kicker of a cliffhanger on the last page.