Friday, June 29, 2007

Ex Libris: May Books

(May was a slow month, literally. I mean, figure it out: I only managed to finish two books for this month and one of them was a short-story anthology I've been reading off and on for most of the past year. So I figure, given I've only read one book in actuality for this month, I'd elaborate further on it. That and this book I was supposed to review for gabe's defunct Scalpel online mag. Hence my first draft of this review...)

Everyone’s heard the line that even dead men tell tales. In well-known SF writer John Meaney’s latest book, this dictum has become a principle.

In a city unlike our own, a police detective has been assigned to protect a famous diva. But things don't work as planned and the policeman fails and is almost killed himself. Now he has to find out who killed the diva—and whether he’s a target himself.

This is the gist of Diva Song, a short story by Meaney I first read in David Hartwell’s Year’s Best Fantasy in 2005 (a quick google check reveals this was first published in Interzone in 2004). In what could be termed as gothic SF noir, Meaney presents his vision of a necropolis: a city powered by necroflux generators burning millions and millions of bones to light up the darkness. Machines like elevators and cars are moved by enslaved wraiths while gargoyles and dire wolves peer with malevolence from rooftops. Zombies are fighting for their right to live, their mechanical hearts beating dark fluids. And crime is still part of life: trust no one, especially if your job is enforcing the law.

Lieutenant O'Connor is a good cop, a lone wolf who knows that doing his job also means making sure his back is covered. Assigned the high-profile job of security in protecting the famous diva Maria diLivnova, O'Connor visits Malfax Cortindo, head of the necroflux generators powering the city, and finds out why famous artists like divas are being killed.

And this is the crux of the story: where the bones power the very city itself, where the bones hold the memories of their bearers and their destruction generate a veritable holocaust of psychic screams-- the bones of artists and creative genuises are a drug so addictive that many would kill for them. Especially those who have the money, influence and power.

Imagine my surprise when I found out Meaney’s latest book, Bone Song, seemed to be a continuation of that story. So when I saw the book in a local bookstore, I snatched this up thinking this would be an enjoyable romp through the dark city Meaney had envisioned for us.

Scratch that. Despite the change of the main character’s name (from Lt. O'Connor to Donal Riordan) and the name of the city (Tristopolis) as well as the addition of a few story details, Meaney’s novel is an expansion of the short story. And it shows, especially the section of the book where the short story ends and the novel truly begins.

And from hereon, it's seems like two different stories Meaney is telling. In the short story (and the first part of the book), Meaney has generated quite an atmosphere of paranoia and fear amidst the darkness of the city with its haunted catacombs and rooftops full of moving shadows. It's not the beasties that are after you, it's the constant twitching fear that something may be after you-- and the thing may be more human than monster.

On the other hand, the second part of the book suddenly turns a shade brighter than its first half as Riordan is recruited by a special team of police operatives in trying to bring down the cabal. And despite the general distrust against Riordan, the paranoia Meaney had created has dissipated. There is action, there is suspense... but the fear that one feels-- like in the scene where the police lieutenant is jogging through the underground tunnels of the city and he hears the voices of the dead-- is gone.

In conclusion, the quite distinctive personality of the dark city of Tristopolis, I think, is where the book's strongest suit lies. Tristopolis is, as rob mentions, reminiscent of Alex Proyas' movie, Dark City. But more than that, it is a city half sketched in by Meaney and half by the reader's own imagination. Unlike say, China Mieville's famous city of New Crobuzon where the strange and the half-familiar are filled in to people the reader's imagination, Meaney only touches the city with enough details and the rest is left in shadow. This works primarily because, the scariest things are those that are unknown. This principles applies-- and works quite well-- here.

So all in all, I'm not exactly happy with how the story out turned in this book; however, given Meaney's best creation here is Tristopolis, this is still the main reason for me to continue reading the succeeding books in this line.

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