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Bone Song
John Meaney
Gollancz, 346 pages

Bone Song
John Meaney
John Meaney has a degree in physics and computer science, is a black belt in Shotokan karate and works in IT. He has been reading SF since the age of eight, and his short fiction has appeared in Interzone and in a number of anthologies. His debut novel, To Hold Infinity, was shortlisted for the BSFA Award and subsequently selected as one of The Daily Telegraph's "Books of the Year."

John Meaney Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: To Hold Infinity
SF Site Review: To Hold Infinity
SF Site Review: Paradox
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With John Meaney
SF Site Review: Paradox

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

When Lieutenant Donal Riordan is assigned to protect opera diva Maria da Livnova, he already knows that the plot to assassinate her is probably part of a conspiracy that involves the highest circles of the city of Tristopolis. What he doesn't know is that he is a pawn in the game. The conspirators seem to be after the corpses of artists, and they're quite willing to help them become corpses -- because in Tristopolis, death is power. The city runs on necroflux, an energy derived from the ground bones of the dead, in which all the memories of their owners's life are inscribed...

This is the first time I have reviewed a book that I haven't finished reading. In the case of Bone Song that is definitely saying something, because I usually lap up everything that might be described as "New Weird," and Bone Song certainly fits the bill in that regard. I really wanted to like this book. And it's not even that it's that bad. But it's not good, either. While this is partly a matter of taste, there are some serious flaws within the 170 pages I did read, and recounting them might at least tell you if you might be willing to overlook them to enter a gothic world that is quite original in its way.

My biggest gripe is the main character. Donal Riordan is a badass cop with a cynical attitude who's not afraid to bend the rules. Put, differently, he's a walking cliché. As a starting point, there is nothing wrong with this. But you have to add at least some complexity and character development, and there is precious little of that in what I've read. The one time Donal does something interesting, he's under the influence of a spell. Even worse, the novel introduces several other cops that are virtually indistinguishable from Donal in terms of character and attitude. Having read Richard Morgan's novels and Jeffrey Thomas' Deadstock, I simply know that this type of character can be done much better.

The female lead, Laura Steel, who's undead, might have been an interesting character, if it wasn't for the fact that she falls for Donal. I couldn't detect any chemistry between the two. Consequently, I wasn't too interested in the two-digit number of orgasms the two might achieve together in one night. The big sex scene seems more like a celebration of masculine ejaculatory power, which is in line with the overall machismo the novel expresses. So, Donal is a martial arts badass cop who fucks like hell. I like him less and less. Once again, things like that can be done right, and again I invoke Richard Morgan.

The plotting also seems off. While it may be a matter of taste that I can't connect emotionally to the hero, the hero also doesn't seem connected to the story on that level. That's all the more strange because there is plenty reason for it to become personal: under the influence of a spell cast by the bad guys, Donal does unforgivable things. Under similar circumstances, he falls in love with the diva -- something that is conveniently forgotten about after her death. Everything that might have been an emotional hook just comes out of nowhere and swiftly disappears again.

One reason for that might be John Meaney's arid prose. There's nothing wrong with that in itself, but it simply doesn't achieve the effects he seems to be aiming for. When the diva sings, we are told that everyone is totally enchanted, but Meaney's matter-of-fact style simply doesn't convey it. The descriptions of Tristopolis are marred by the same problem. Conceptually, Tristopolis sounds damn cool: a gothic, industrial megacity powered by death and inhabited by ghosts who are enslaved to operate mechanical devices. Quicksilver rain. Nurses with sharp little teeth. Even the swear words are different: "Thanatos" is generic, and "Death" replaces "God." Still, it all seems like surface effects, and when a giant skull is described as part of the city architecture, I neither feel nor see it. It all feels like claptrap. Bone Song tries to play in the same league as China Miéville's Perdido Street Station or Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground, but it doesn't come close.

I keep comparing Bone Song to works by other authors in this review, which might be the reason why I'm so harsh on it. As a fast-paced detective novel set in a gothic alternative world, it's probably not that bad. It even has some pretty powerful moments, like Donal's unsettling escape from an enchanted multitude (and there might be more of these in the chapters I haven't read). If, for example, you always thought that China Miéville's style is too florid, and his characters are too conflicted and incompetent, Bone Song might actually be a very good read for you. For my part, I have to say that much more interesting books are waiting on my bedstand and that I'm not willing to invest another few hours into Bone Song, hoping that it might turn out to be worthwhile after all.

Copyright © 2007 by Jakob Schmidt

Jakob is part of the editorial team of the German magazine Pandora. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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