The Novelettes Book Reviews

My Paradoxical Relationship with Samantha Shannon’s THE BONE SEASON

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The Bone Season was one of the first books I reviewed when I first started my blog. I’d heard the buzz about the girl who was poised to become the next J. K. Rowling, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her book.

Shannon was only twenty-two when The Bone Season was published. We are just about the same age, and I was so jealous! Not only had this girl managed to write a manuscript, but she had scored an unusual deal – seven books, based on a debut. The last person to do so successfully, at least that I could think of, was…well, you know who it was.

The first time I read The Bone Season, I was completely underwhelmed. It was messy and sprawling, and I didn’t get much of a sense for any of the characters, including the protagonist. The world building was choppy and shallow at first, and then unnecessarily detailed as the book progressed – a quality that I find difficult to overcome. The most unforgiveable aspect of this much-anticipated book was much simpler than all of that. It was the way in which the author introduced the reader to the world of Sheol I.

Fantasy authors should show readers their world, not tell them about it. I can’t remember who said this, but I think that they were spot on. For two thirds of The Bone Season, Shannon condescends to tell the reader in lengthy, sometimes clumsy paragraphs, all about Scion and Sheol I. The story grinds to a halt while the reader is, quite literally, lectured about the various caste systems of each society (different, but equally detailed), about the seemingly endless types of voyants, and the many translations of the terminology used by each level of each caste of each system.

Reading The Bone Season for a second time, I can feel Shannon’s relationship with her world. Her passion for it, her desire to bring her readers into Sheol I, is alive in the pages of her book. This is a wonderful thing, but for the first two thirds of the book, she falls into the same trap that Robert Jordan did toward the end of the Wheel of Time saga – both Shannon and Jordan created rich, detailed worlds, but in doing so, forgot about the stories that brought them there in the first place.

Like Jordan, I think Shannon could experience some issues with pacing, but hers will be in reverse. Robert Jordan forgot what was happening in WoT, and went rambling with his characters. He led us through his immersive landscape in the process, but his readers were left wondering about what was happening to their beloved protagonists. Pacing in The Bone Season is quite different – it’s all very quick. In the space of one book, the author tells us about the establishment of a fascist government in London (Scion), Scion’s failure to take root in Ireland (the Molly Riots), the existence of an ancient and formidable race called the Rephaim, the troubling relationship that they have with Scion, the existence of an underground city under their control, the criminal world of the rebel voyants, the history of the rebellion against the Rephaim, when and where the language of Scion came from, and all of the many ways in which one can be clairvoyant.

Fascinating stuff, but it feels irrelevant, because there is no accompanying story – at least, not for the first two thirds of the novel.

 ***

Prior to and during my reread of The Bone Season, I have been reading another book. Shrewd readers will have already made the connection between my gripes about world building and Robert Jordan, and will have realized that this book is Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.

The second in his Stormlight Archive, Words of Radiance is a testament to Sanderson’s complete control over his world building. If you’ve read The Mistborn series, you’ll know that Sanderson does not get lost, even when it seems that that is exactly what is happening. You pay attention to every detail, to every interlude, because they might become pivotal at some later point in the narrative.

It’s really unfair of me to compare The Bone Season to yet another master of the fantasy genre. First, it was J. K. Rowling, and now it’s Brandon Sanderson, who is probably my favourite author. At first, I felt bad, like I’d fallen into the trap of disappointing myself again – but then I saw it in a new way.

Samantha, if you’re reading this: I’ve been harsh on you, I know. But that’s only because I think you can take it. It’s only because I’ve been comparing you to Brandon Sanderson and J. K. Rowling.

Yes. Sanderson and Rowling. I see it. Roshar, The Final Empire, Hogwarts – and Sheol I.

Now that I’ve finished The Bone Season for a second time, I’ve taken a step back. I’ve been reading it so closely this whole time that all I could see were its faults. But this is one part of your writing, and there’s so, so much more to it.

Readers, in the final third of The Bone Season, Paige steps off the page. Her spirit unspools itself and slams into your dreamscape, and suddenly, you’re there with her. Warden, Paige’s brooding Reph keeper, is revealed to have a depth of character that I did not expect of him. A rebellion has broken, and its second wave is brewing. Paige is in a kind of triumphant state of shambles, and everything is up in the air. She’s got a million choices to make, and whichever way she turns are the tips of the many swords surrounding her.

I’m about to start book two of the series, and I promise you now, Samantha – I’m in for the long haul.

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