An intriguing but wildly inconsistent book.
Imagine, if you will, J.D. Robb’s In Death series redone with the deathworld of Chronicles of Riddick, the sensibility of a Batman graphic novel, and the magic of California Bones (my review). It’s an unusual combination, a Dagwood sandwich of a book if you will, and much of my reading was occupied by puzzling out the details of the world.
“Donal sketched a fingertip salute to the shadows beyond the stone steps. Stuffing his hands in his overcoat pockets, he looked up at the two hundred stories of police HQ rearing upward, dark and uncompromising. It was late and cold and the sky appeared deep purple, heavily opaque. Somewhere near the top, Commissioner Vilnar’s office waited. And reading between the lines of this morning’s phone call, the commissioner had a new job lined up for him–something Donal was not going to enjoy.”
The plot is straightforward: someone is killing artists to use their bones sooner than a natural death would allow. Donal Riordan is a highly respected
New York City Tristopolis cop, whose job is his life. If he isn’t on a case, he’s practicing his marksmanship, going for a run or resting in his crummy little apartment in a dangerous side of town. Commissioner Vilnar assigns Riordan the job of protecting a famed opera singer while she is in town. The first half of the book centers around the protection detail, while the second is nominally about finding the conspirator(s). There’s a missing-person side investigation that ends up dominating the majority of the second half of the book. There’s also supposed to be political underpinnings to the main mystery, but it is not well integrated.
It’s the world-building that intrigues here. There’s hints of a chronic, quick-silver rain that is toxic to the skin, to the extent that Donal tends to spend his time running in the
sewers catacombs (what isn’t explained is why there are catacombs if the dead are burned for energy?) There are death-wolves that guard the doors of the police precinct, and seem to act as independent police agents. The desk sergeant is literally melded to his desk. There are non-human races, such as the cat-like people that staff the hospital/healing facilities.
However, the flip side to all the ideas is the extent to which they are developed. Much of it feels like ‘sci-fi/fantasy’ in the same way that J.D. Robb’s books do: replace any given object or basic function with something fantastical and call it world-building. There’s a comment about ’25/9′ instead of ’24/7,’ streets go up to the thousands, taxis are purple and instead of armor-piercing rounds, we have chitin piercing rounds with a silver load.
At times, there’s a little more depth, which leads to interesting mental routes. Mechanical devices are powered by indentured wraiths and the dead bones that provide ‘thaumaturgical energy’. Death seems to come in many layers, with the wraiths resembling a disembodied consciousness and the zombies are bodies reliant on the energy from the bones. Wraiths and zombies are viewed as less-than-human, but unfortunately, the writing around it is largely generic and non-nuanced, resorting to obvious -ist comments. It’d be easy to replace ‘zombies’ with any other group and have a non-fantasy story, and the wraiths have a strong parallel in slavery-based cultures.
This is a book that is all over the ratings map, even among reading friends, with two giving it one-star, and two awarding four and five stars. It’s not one that would be easy to recommend, but I can see it appealing to people who enjoyed Two Serpents Rise by Gladstone. I was frequently struck at how vivid some of the scenes were in my mind; I feel like there’s something almost cinematic about it. Recently, I was discussing the concept of stretchy-books that push one’s reading. This felt like one of them, not in terms of ethics or boundary-pushing writing skill, but in the wealth of ideas and their combination. I wanted to play longer in the world, so despite a variety of issues with plotting and world-building, I’ll be giving it a read.