Paige Mahoney is a 19-year-old clairvoyant. Her specialty is dreamwalking, sending her spirit through the ether and into someone else’s dreamscape. She lives in a dystopian future version of London, one of many European cities crushed by the iron grip of the Scion security force. Queen Victoria’s son King Edward VII held a séance that supposedly resulted in a voyant-related killing spree, or so the legend goes. Ever since, Scion has focused all their power on routing out paranormals and locking them in the Tower of London to torturous ends. Those who can hide from the Evil League of Evil often trade one prison for another in the form of crime syndicates. That’s where Paige is when Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season opens; she works for a powerful group out of the Seven Dials in central London, and accidentally kills someone with her psychic powers.
When she’s captured, Paige is not executed, but intead gets shipped off to Sheol I, a colony infested and controlled by the beings controlling Scion—the Rephaim. They’re some sort of something-or-other from an alternate dimension or suchlike that also happen to look like really tall, dark skinned humans. Or something. They feed on the auras of voyants and get their kicks kicking their non-voyant human slaves. So once again Paige finds herself enslaved, but she decides she likes her crime boss enslaver better than the Reph ones, and she steels herself for an escape. It gets crazier and more complicated from there.
The Bone Season doesn’t break new ground (yet another fantasy about an über-talented, magical, messianic, cis-het, white Chosen One told from their POV), but what it does do is thrilling and creative. It’s overly-complex, under-explained, and half-described, which makes the lexicon, maps, and flowcharts Shannon has provided vital. Or you can do what I did and forget to look everything up and just assume you’ll eventually figure out what a “rhabdomancer” is. But the story itself is engaging and exciting. It’s energetic, imaginative, and engrossing. I just want to make sure you understand that I really enjoyed the story Shannon told, if not the manner in which she chose to tell it. It’s important you remember that I liked Bone overall, because you’re probably going to forget that come the end of this post.
The romance is deliciously sexy, though a bit out of the blue. I won’t reveal who gets busy with whom for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say, one day they’re rabid enemies, the next reluctant allies, the next they’re pawing all over each other. The relationship isn’t ideal, nor do I think the story necessarily needs it, but it’s right up there with Sherrilyn Kenyon in titillating-ness (pun intended). It’s also a completely unhealthy relationship for both characters that can only end in tragedy. Let me put it this way: the book opens with a quote from Charlotte Brontë, author of gothic romance Jane Eyre. Shannon’s lovers are basically paranormal fantasy versions of Jane and Mr Rochester.
I can totally see why, despite its structural issues, Imaginarium Studios has optioned the film. (By the bye, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually make it. Just means they get first crack at doing something with it—or just not letting anyone else work it. They can always let their option expire.) There’s some great stuff in this book, and she’s got enough pieces on the board now—albeit set-pieces that aren’t fully understood or well-explained—to do something potentially amazing. Even if she can’t/doesn’t live up to the very high expectations, it’ll be hard for her to do anything too detrimental to her series. What I mean is there’s so much room to explore in her world that even if she picked the most boring story to tell it would still be interesting simply by virtue of its setting and parapsychological attributes of its characters. Didn’t intend for that to be as much of a backhanded compliment as it came out...
The first book in a series is usually the most difficult. It’s like the pilot episode of a TV show. You have to construct a story that can stand independently while simultaneously setting up and/or hinting at future mysteries yet also not overplaying (or underplaying) your hand. Counting Bone, neither of the last two books I read stuck the landing at being great first novels. When I recently reviewed Omens by Kelley Armstrong, I wrote:
The biggest issue I had with this book was that nothing really happens. I mean, there’s a basic storyline, several dramatic moments, and a fraught climax, but it’s all so... In between the bits of action and even smaller bits of magic, there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, to-ing and fro-ing, plotting and rethinking. It’s like 400+ pages of prologue. The first book in the series is a whole lot of explanation and not enough payoff. It suffers from both not having quite enough worldbuilding for a multi-book series, while also having so many veiled conspiracies to fill half a dozen books. Contradictory, I know. And also kind of a letdown for me.
That’s The Bone Season in a nutshell.
Shannon also chose to write in first person. It may have been a boon to her, but it’s a detriment to me. I feel like every book I’ve read in the last 6 months has been in first person, and the only authors to do it right were Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), and Ian Tregillis (Necessary Evil). I don’t care about the main character’s every thought, interest, passion, or whim. I think of first person narration like voiceovers in a movie. It tends to be a lazy way to get around exploring your world or story. When you’re trapped with one narrator, you lose the ability to see anything that happens outside that POV.
There’s this great quote by Chuck Palahniuk that goes:
“Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it...Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.”
And that explains exactly why I generally dislike first person. More often than not, it refuses to let the reader do any of those things. When it’s done well, it works like gangbusters. When it done poorly, it functions as little more than as a means for infodumping.
And great Hera’s ghost, the infodumps. A good half of Bone is heavy-handed exposition. If it’s not other voyants literally sitting Paige down to explain in detail the workings of her kind, then it’s the Big Bad taking time out of her busy murdering schedule to reveal her evil plot. Look, people, infodumps are not your friend. Use sparingly. If you can’t find a way to reveal key information to your characters or audience, then go back to the drawing board. Don’t just resort to a tertiary character wandering up out of nowhere and revealing everything your main character needs to know. Heed the old screenwriting chestnut: “Show, don’t tell.”
There are a lot of things I liked about Bone. And a lot I didn’t. Bloomsbury may believe she’s the next J.K. Rowling, but I think that’s premature and unfounded. Shannon’s a good beginning writer, but is certainly no teenage authorial prodigy. Her book makes a lot of rookie mistakes—and with the amount of fanfic I read, trust me, I’m well-versed in rookie mistakes—but I’m trying (and not always succeeding) to not to hold that against her. As she grows and practices, she’ll get better and will hopefully shake off some of her less-than-appealing writing ticks.
Long story short, The Bone Season is a good yet problematic first novel. The problems aren’t enough to derail the story, nor are they issues everyone will find difficult to deal with. They frustrated me, but not enough to want to throw the book across the room. The world is fascinating, the characters intriguing, the magic unique, and the romance steamy enough to overpower the troublesome parts. Buy it, read it, and enjoy.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.