Bone Song – John Meaney (Review)

Bone Song John MeaneyIt’s been a while since I’ve read sci-fi, and Bone Song isn’t even really sci-fi: it’s a strange cross between Noir crime fiction, dark fantasy, and science fiction, all rolled into one.

Donal Riordan is a cop in Tristopolis, a city powered by the suffering of the dead. Tasked with protecting an opera singer from having her bones harvested for their dreams, Donal uncovers the edges of a vast conspiracy that affects all levels of Tristopolis’ government.

The star of Bone Song is the setting – the narrative is well-constructed, the characters are interesting and relatable, but they pale next to the magnificent Gothic edifice that Meaney has constructed. The setting oozes depth and originality, constantly presenting you with details about the world without making it drag.

Exposition is clearly one of Meaney’s strength: without massive information-dumps, he still manages to get past the initial chapters without too much confusion. Normally, in a series with a complex and unfamilar world, there is a long period of disengagement until all of the concepts are explained – you spend your time wondering what a trolloc is, or if the nine gods are going to be relevant later. Bone Song bypasses that – the author gives just enough information to understand the action, but not so much that you get bogged down.

And this slow drip-feed of information continues throughout the whole book: there’s never a point where you feel that you have a total understanding of the setting, in part because no one in the setting understands it fully. What you do have is more and more of an understanding, slotting new information in as it comes, building up the same shadowy, fearful half-knowledge as the characters do.

Because Tristopolis is a city where no one is entirely comfortable or secure. Clawed wraiths guard important buildings, and some of the cars are alive. Purple clouds swirl above a city lit only by artificial light. Beneath the city are vast reactors filled with the bones of the tortured dead, but no one above the ground cares to look too deeply into that. The more active dead are everywhere – zombies live alongside mortals, strange aggregate and constructed creatures serve the inhabitants in a variety of ways. And there are darker, more nebulous secrets: mages twist and bend minds to their will, forensic scientists listen to the truth wrung from victims’ bones.

It’s difficult for writing not to get overwrought when trying to summarise the setting, and I can’t hope to get across the full richness of Meaney’s world, but the basics are there. Tristopolis is a city that has close bonds between the living and the dead, a city where being bewitched and entranced is an ever-present danger. There is a wonderful, looming Gothic richness to the city and the novel – you spend the entire time reading on edge, waiting for something awful to happen.

The slow exposition, and the setting’s confusion and secrets allow Meaney to keep adding detail and new aspects – halfway through the book, I realised that he had mentioned sorcerer-controlled troop-transport dinosaur-bats, and I’d just accepted it as totally normal. Suspension of disbelief is not an issue – the book leads you into the more unexpected aspects subtly and confidently.

The prose is generally very polished, very competent, with an entirely deliberate thread of madness often running through it. The characters are archetypal (Riordan as a noir detective being the most obvious) but again, very polished and well-designed. This is not a book with many loose edges.

The one slightly clunky part of the book is that the names are sometimes rather baldly symbolic – the city is named after sadness, and there’s a character called “Malfax” – I’m sure you can guess what side he’s on.

The plot itself is multi-layered, wheels within wheels, dark conspiracies and so on. Not the kind of thing I’ve been recently reading, but I do like books that mess with expectations and genuinely do try to make their twists a little less than obvious.

Again and again though, when thinking about it, I keep returning to the atmosphere and the setting. It’s creepy, it’s unsettling, and I want more of it. All of the things in the book that I don’t currently understand (where do the wraiths which power cars and lifts come from? Why is there no sunlight?) simply increase the engagement; you want to understand the puzzle of the city, the backstory and build-up that is only hinted at, never made too obvious.

In some books, that’s deeply irritating: I have several books where the first chapters infuriated me, because they didn’t explain what was going on, or why I should care. Bone Song is the exemplar of how to do that correctly: enough information to understand, little enough that you keep guessing, that more things can be added in the future. It’s something sci-fi as a whole struggles with, and it’s something that Meaney does exceptionally well.

I borrowed the book on the recommendation of a friend, and wasn’t really expecting much from it. I was immensely and pleasurably surprised by how interesting and competent Bone Song was. The book is tightly-plotted, tightly-written, and well worth reading.

Buy it here.

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