The Bone Season: Expectations v Reality

September 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Bone Season is the story of Paige, who is a clairvoyant. In Paige’s world, there are countless kinds of voyants, each with their own specialised ability. Paige, a dreamwalker, can control the minds of others. She is one of the rarest and most powerful voyants in the known world, and an invaluable member of the Seven Dials syndicate. On the flipside, those who can read the Tarot cards (cartomancers), or those who can see part-way into the future are regarded as petty and superfluous. Within voyant society, there exists a caste system of sorts, with the rarer and more powerful voyants occupying the higher ranks.

Bone Season Cover

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Paige lives in an alternate history London, which is controlled by an oppressive government called Scion. In the futuristic landscape of Sci-Lo (Scion-London), voyants like Paige are policed with Orwellian ferocity. Paige is a part of a syndicate, an outlawed group of psychics who work together in the underground voyant crime scene. When she accidentally kills a civilian, Paige is abducted by the law-enforcement agency she believes is acting on Scion’s behalf and taken to The Tower. There, Paige meets other prisoners, some of whom have been imprisoned for up to nine years, and all of whom are voyants.

Smash cut to Sheol, where the rest of the book takes place. Forget the futuristic realm of Sci-Lo, we’ve just been catapulted into a vaudevillian underground world that was once known as the lost city of Oxford. Sheol is run by the mysterious Rephaim, ancient beings that have been holding court in Sheol for centuries. Apparently, the Rephaim have also been the driving force behind the oppressive rule of Scion. The law enforcement of Scion work for the Rephaim, and they regularly capture powerful voyants for the Rephaim’s army. As part of the army, these voyants will be conscripted to protect their oppressors from supernatural beasts called Emim, who squeeze through inter-dimensional cracks and invade our realm.

Sound confusing? That’s because it is.

Author Samantha Shannon, 21 years old.

Author Samantha Shannon, 21 years old.

The jumps between Scion and Sheol, between Oxford and Seven Dials are frequent and difficult to follow. The murky caste system of the voyant society is imaginative, but seemingly arbitrary. As a result, it’s very difficult to remember which type of voyant does what, and where they might rank in terms of their value to Sheol society. Paige is taken in by one of Sheol’s elite, known to her as Warden. Initially frosty and cruel, Warden (predictably) warms up to Paige, and the beginnings of a romance are established. Of all the things Shannon rushed in this novel, the development of Warden and Paige’s trust in one another was painfully slow. This messed with the timing of the novel, and the story becomes jerky and out-of-sync. On top of this frenzied world-building, The Bone Season is a non-linear narrative. So the reader not only has to contend with multiple worlds and complex social systems, but shifting times as well!  I believe that the events of The Bone Season could have been spread out across several volumes, and this might have improved both the plot and the structure of the book. As it stands, the world-building is a dysfunctional mass of layers. It’s all too much, Samantha! All too much!

Before The Bone Season was published, Samantha Shannon was tentatively identified as The Next J K Rowling. Aside from the fact that both authors were picked up by Bloomsbury, I don’t really see any similarities between them.  Rowling’s world-building is clean, precise and air-tight, where Shannon’s is messy, tangled and time-confused. Where Rowling’s characters are both individual and colourful, Shannon’s feel two-dimensional at best. Romance was not even on Rowling’s radar, but it seems to be a major focus for Shannon (although, admittedly, her protagonist is a lot older than Harry).

Can there really BE another J. K. Rowling?

Can there really BE another J. K. Rowling?

Shannon herself has identified that she finds this comparison stressful, and I don’t blame her. As a breakout author, being compared to the most successful fantasy author in the last fifty years sets some pretty damn high expectations. Ultimately, I think that this comparison is the reason I was so disappointed with The Bone Season. I expected this book to be special, and I read it with the bar set unreasonably high. I was puzzled when, by about a quarter of the way through it, I just didn’t love it. So I feel that I owe the author an apology. I didn’t enjoy this book, but it’s only because it wasn’t Harry Potter. My assumption that it would be on par with my favourite series in the world was unfair, and I shouldn’t have brought that to this young writer’s debut novel.

I’m a conscientious supporter of debut authors, particularly young ones. I love reading female protagonists. I am a huge fan of dystopia. I am so intrigued by the concept of the post-apocalyptic world that I think I’d probably be excited if I found out there was an impending zombie plague.  I’ve always been mystified by the concept of the supernatural, both in and out of the context of literature.  I have a bizarre fixation with angels. Having grown up in a British family, I love grungy, British culture and I also love anything steampunk-y. And more than anything, perhaps, I love a good rebellion.  So I should have loved The Bone Season. And maybe I will, once the next book comes out. I am not going to write off an entire series because I was disappointed by the first book. Although the technical side of things was messy, Shannon clearly has the imagination to bring Sheol and Scion to life, and I hope to see her do so in the series’ next novel.

What did you think, readers? Have you read The Bone Season? Did you enjoy it?

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