Dark Blood (Gollancz S.F.)
by John Meaney
Review by Marcus Gipps
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575079618
Date: 21 February 2008 List Price £12.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
John Meaney's follow up to Gothic, SF, thriller Bone Song, enthusiastically reviewed in our February 08 issue by Gayle. Dark Blood is published in both hard cover and trade paperback by Gollnacz.
"... Police officer Donal Riordan, killed and brought back to life with the heart of his undead lover beating in his chest... getting used to a bizarre and frightening new existence. As one of the undead the living citizens of Tristopolis distrust and fear him. But death has its advantages. He can sense the presence, the thoughts, the feelings of his fellow zombies, he is tireless, he can see better, hear more acutely. But none of this will necessarily save him as he begins to investigate who is behind a plot to ensorcel the entire population of Tristopolis. The plot goes right to the top and anyway who gets in the way will be killed again."
We start this book without a huge amount of help for those who have forgotten what happened in Bone Song, which is fair enough, but did mean that it took me a while to get a grip on everything going on. Our hero, the now-dead policeman with his (properly deceased) zombie boss/lover's heart taking the place of his own, is off to watch the execution of her murderer. We do get a few reminders of what's going on, but within the first few pages - which detail the really rather unpleasant mode of execution used in this setting - we set off on the new plot, and for the rest of the novel it tends to be a case of sink or swim. There are so many characters and locations and plots going on that there isn't really time to waste on re-iterating information, so I did have the odd moment when I had to pause, think about what had happened before and reset my mental compass before continuing. That's probably my fault, and one of the novel's main attractions is the speed at which it moves, but I still couldn't help but feel that things were going on that I was missing.
As I said, though, the novel is so fast-paced that really, it doesn't matter too much. Part of the reason for the feeling of rapidity is that, in many ways, the book feels like a number of short stories and incidents, all wrapped up in a larger plot. Thus, although there are plenty of narrative strands reaching throughout the book (both backwards and forwards) the actual story itself is revealed in incremental fractions - a hint here, a cut-scene there, gradually building up into the bigger picture. It can be unsatisfying, in a way - the constant teasing of future events can erode some of the momentum of the book, although generally it works well - but equally, it gives Meaney a chance to explore some of his world more closely.
And there's no doubt that he's chosen a great playground to explore. Weird and wonderful may not exactly be a new thing in SF, but John Meaney does it well. The necro-technology of his setting is carefully defined, and actually makes some sort of sense (in a made-up way, obviously). The fact that he can make the fate of a possessed motorbike central to his characters, and us, is an indication of how well-rounded his writing can be, and he has a happy willingness to pull the rug out from under the feet of his readers. The death of Laura, the zombie cop/love interest of the first book, may not have been entirely surprising, but there are some moments here which are truly unexpected, and there is a twist at the very end of the book which, although maybe I should have seen it coming, is very well executed indeed.
At its heart though, Dark Blood doesn't quite know what kind of novel it is. Police procedural? Horror? Science Fiction? Cautionary anti-racist tale? A bit of all of these, certainly, and the various parts do gel together quite well, but there is an occasional grinding of gears. The coda, in which our hero follows the bad guys to another city, feels a little bit like an excuse to show that Meaney can write about other interesting places as well as his carefully-depicted Tristopolis - there is no real need for it, although that isn't to say that isn't as well-written as the rest of the book. The hints of the political background are fascinating as well, depicting as they do the rise of an anti-unhuman feeling in the city, but it seems a little pat at times, and the solution - take away the evil people whipping up hatred, and it'll probably all go away - seems a little naive, especially for a book that is otherwise generally so bleak and cynical.
So Dark Blood is a mixed - but generally positive - bag, then. Full of exciting scenes (often very filmic - this would make a great TV series or set of films), generally well written, carefully grounded in a well-realised setting and different enough (both from the first book, and much SF in general) to stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, a slight grating of plot and an occasional tendency to drift off into interesting yet essentially superfluous tangents. To be honest, I suspect that there are lots of people out there who wouldn't even consider that a negative point, and I'm torn about it myself. I just couldn't help but think there was a leaner, better novel trying to get out. You really need to have read Bone Song before tackling this one, but this is an advanced and enjoyable continuation.