The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
Sometimes you have to put aside the hype preceding the release of a book just to able to judge the book on its own merit because the hype can raise your expectations of the book, expectations that aren’t met when you eventually read the material. Sometimes you are left astounded at why there had been so much hype at all, and you wonder if perhaps there is such a thing as too much publicity. It is incredibly disappointing when a book completely fails to live up to its own hype, and more so to leave its reader entirely unsatisfied, or worse - bored.
Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season is one such book. It’s a major title for Bloomsbury this August, with news of a six figure deal for the 21 year old writer for a seven book series (plus movie rights already sold) doing the rounds much before the book’s publication date. The series is already being compared to Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but let’s clear that up right away - The Bone Season is not nearly as well thought out as either of those titles were, no matter what your personal tastes may be. Putting aside all the pre-publication hype, The Bone Season leaves a lot to be desired: it is an ambitious, sprawling, complicated novel that never achieves its full potential simply because it has just too much going on. Shannon may be a decent writer most of the time, but that isn’t enough.
The Bone Season is set in an alt-history version of the UK with the mid-19th century as the turning point for society, which is now a messy mix of people with clairvoyant abilities and those who fear them, both living under the watchful eye of a totalitarian government that has made deals with a race of humanoids in order to survive. ‘When Earth broke its threshold, it became exposed to a higher dimension called Netherworld’, explains one of the cold, powerful Rephaim of their origins. The Rephaim secretly recruit all the ‘unnaturals’ or clairvoyants they can, before relocating them under duress to a city called Sheol 1. This city, previously Oxford, ‘acts as a beacon’ for the Emin, a parasitic race of ‘mindless, bestial creatures with a taste for human flesh’ who have now entered the earthly plane alongside the Rephaim. The Rephaim train human clairvoyants to fight off the Emin. Those who do not make the cut are reduced to serve the Rephaim as slaves or as entertainment. 19 year old Paige Mahoney is one of the clairvoyants picked up in London and removed to Sheol 1. She is a ‘dreamwalker’, able to extend her astral self into the aether, well past the limits of ‘meatspace’, to detect the auras of others and even to enter their minds, with potential to control them. What she does is considered illegal, because all ‘clairvoyance was prohibited, of course, but the kind that made money was downright sin.’
It is Paige’s story The Bone Season follows. Paige, the intrepid hero of (presumably) the entire series. Paige who, like much of The Bone Season, is mostly only interesting in theory.
Paige is handed over to the Warden, the ‘blood-consort’ of the Rephaim’s ‘blood-sovereign’ Nashira, who in turn is very interested in adding Paige to her ethereal menagerie. Paige is everything you would imagine a protagonist in such a novel to be - feisty, strong, stubborn, selfless. If only she wasn’t such a cliche. Of course, Paige ends up with the Stockholm Syndrome that all cliched young female protagonists who are in the power of commanding handsome strangers suffer. The Warden is ‘the single most beautiful and terrible thing [she’d] ever laid eyes on’, and in no great reveal he becomes crucial to her escape.
There is obviously a great deal of detailed worldbuilding in The Bone Season - I haven’t listed each of the threads Shannon tries to weave together, because somehow none of these is fully realised. Along with the ‘Seven Orders of Clairvoyance’ (she provides a detailed chart and there are actually many more individual types than seven), there are the potential aliens, the superior beings from the Netherworld who have vampiric potential (they feed off both human blood and aura) and are able to heal humans, there is a secret city with a secret army fighting a secret enemy while dealing with class tensions, a cast of street-criminal characters as interesting as brightly painted wooden puppets, references to ancient Jewish lore (Rephaim is a word describing ancient ancestors in the Hebrew Bible which also references Sheol is the underworld), thought crimes and thought police and even a glossary of the slang used in the book (it’s based on the slang of the criminal underworld of 19th century London, we are told). It’s an incredible amount of information and a great deal of effort has clearly been put into the set up of the story, followed by a fairly predictable plot.
There are enough details in The Bone Season to last seven books. These details probably should have been spread out over seven books. There are many instances of stilted dialogue, flat characters, predictable outcomes and just plain clunky writing - everything that makes The Bone Season feel like an unpolished, amateur debut. Samantha Shannon has worked hard at creating an immense world - would that she had worked harder to create a smaller one instead.