Bone Song is a genre-bending blend of dark/urban fantasy and hardboiled crime enshrouded in noir. Think Dirty Harry in a city created by the bastard love-child of Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville – it’s close, but still a disservice to Meaney’s creation.
The city, Tristopolis, is the familiar urban center – we have skyscrapers, cars, roadways, police, upper and under classes, and crime. However, this eerie familiarity is lost in the bizarre world Meaney creates. Humans are not the only sentient beings – we also have various types of wraiths, werebeasts, zombies, and others in a world powered by necroflux generators – think the opposite of bioenergy. The bones of the dead literally power the lives of living in a world where life and death mean even more (and less) than in our own. Simple appliances might be operated by an enslaved wraith, autopsies are performed by specialized people who read the bones of the dead, and sorcery is another fact of life.
The horrifically realized world takes a back seat to the story – which is pure hardboiled crime. A mysterious organization piercing the ranks of the elite is killing celebrities to get their hands on their priceless bones before natural death confuses the issue. Lieutenant Donal Conner is assigned to protect a visiting Diva from this shadowy threat. His ultimate failure leaves him nearly dead from a sorcerous ensorcellment and recruited into a secretive task force investigating the killers all the way to the pillars of society.
Told mostly in the first person from Donal’s point of view, the plot drives the story forward, with strong characterization of the main characters and adequate characterization of secondary players. We see the world through the perspective of the locals, with little in the way of explanation and leaving lots of questions – in a good way. Donal is the stereotypical good, but not necessarily nice, cop – he’s got years of experience, lives a lone and insular life, and has long since gotten over the guilt that comes with killing someone. In a clever touch, Donal is a fan of fantasy novels and is seen reading a fantasy serial set in a world very different from his own, but sounding rather similar to ours.
It’s rare to find something that feels new, yet Meaney manages to succeed powerfully with Bone Song. A fantastic and unique world is created, yet only glimpsed at by the reader. The backdrop of a hardboiled crime plot cleverly disguises stories of human interaction, trust, mistrust, loyalty, morality, acceptance, and love while delivering a great mystery. My only complaint is that the ending felt a bit rushed and abrupt, while ultimately succeeding.
Bone Song is a dark and creepy delight for genre fans that I strongly recommend: 8/10.