It is set in Tristopolis, a City Noir inhabited by humans alongside with mages, witches, zombies, wraiths, talking gargoyles, Cat Folk, and other fantastic creatures. Death plays a prominent role in the culture of Tristopolis: the citizens invoke the names of Thanatos and Hades instead of "God", skulls are a decorative element in architecture, and the city's primary source of energy is necroflux, derived from the bones of the dead.
The protagonist, police Lieutenant Donal Riordan, is given the task to protect the opera singer Maria daLivnova against assassination. After he fails his mission and ends up being brainwashed, he is rescued by the beautiful Commander Laura Steele, who reveals to him that he was set up as a pawn by his higher-ups, and that Maria's murder was organized by the Black Circle, a large-scale conspiracy involving politicians and high-ranking members of the Tristopolis society, which targets gifted artists to traffic their bones. Riordan joins Laura's task force to put an end to the Black Circle's nefarious activities; at the same time, he falls in love with her, and they start a passionate romance. Donal's love for Laura is undeterred even when he learns that she is a zombie...
It was the first book in the Tristopolis series, followed by Dark Blood (2009), Tristopolis Requiem (2018), and a short story collection Two for Tristopolis (2019).
The book contains examples of:
- Always Night: Sun is never mentioned in Tristopolis.
- And Then John Was a Zombie: An unusual example; Donal becomes a zombie at the end of the book, but given that zombies are the good guys there, this is not that much of a Downer Ending. Much more of a Downer is that Laura dies second, and final time.
- Attractive Zombie: Laura Steele.
- Black Blood: The zombies are black-blooded.
- Boy Meets Ghoul: And how! The novel involves some steamy sex scenes between Donal and Laura. When he learns that she's undead, he's a bit shocked that he's just had sex with a zombie (Lampshaded by Laura herself: "Haven't you ever fucked a zombie before?"); however, he gets over it very quickly, and right after that they spend an even more passionate night of love.
- City Noir: Tristopolis.
- Everybody Hates Hades: Inverted; it seems that death is a central element in the culture of Tristopolis, and Thanatos and Hades are venerated as gods.
- Everyone Loves Blondes: Laura, Donal's love interest, is described as fair-haired.
- Fantastic Racism: Zombies and other undead beings are considered "second-class citizens" and generally inferior to humans, and wraiths in particular are used as slaves to manipulate technical devices. The anti-zombie prejudice persists in spite of the fact that zombies both retain their human personality and possess some magical powers which they didn't have as humans.
- Friendly Zombie: Laura. She is very much capable of human feelings (for instance, she genuinely loves Donal and her friend Xalia), and as the task force commander, she does the best for society and catches dangerous criminals.
- Lost Lenore: Laura is killed (again; even zombies can be killed) at the end of the novel, becoming this for Donal in the second book Dark Blood.
- Meaningful Name: "Tristis" means "sad" or "sorrowful" in Latin; the name "Tristopolis" therefore stands for "The city of sadness".
- Revenant Zombie: The zombies of Tristopolis are this: they do not rot in spite of being dead, they possess some sort of magical powers which they didn't have as humans, and most importantly, they retain the human personality they had in life.
- Sleeping with the Boss: An unusual example: Donal sleeps with his boss Laura Steele, but they are both genuinely in love with each other, and their relationship is undeterred by the fact that he is her subordinate.
- Urban Fantasy: Tristopolis is inhabited by humans alongside with fantastic creatures.