Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season

I don’t understand this book.

I understand why a lot of bad books exist–they may not be original or show any writerly skill, but they’re still frequently joyful, interested in their own story, convinced of their own worth.

There isn’t even that much to criticise about The Bone Season–it’s utterly predictable and its characters are undeveloped, but that’s true of lots of books. But its by-the-numbers-ness and sheer lack of conviction just wore me down and made me so unhappy.

This review appeared in Mint, and is on their website here.

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Somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, things changed. Certain human beings developed the power of clairvoyance, enabling them to commune in various ways with the spirit world. Samantha Shannon’s debut novel, The Bone Season, is set two hundred years into this alternative timeline. In the London of 2059, clairvoyance can get you arrested and it’s in your best interests to hide it as best as possible. The city is under the control of a security force called Scion and members of the criminal underworld, like nineteen year old Paige Mahoney, are in constant danger. Then Paige is captured, and learns just what has been happening to those clairvoyants who have been arrested over the past two centuries.

Shannon’s novel has been greeted with a certain amount of hype—as a seven book fantasy series by a new author (and published by Bloomsbury, no less), the Harry Potter comparisons were all but inevitable and the publicity around The Bone Season has taken full advantage of this. But the comparison was invalid from the moment it was made. The debut author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would never have presented the world with a close to five-hundred page tome (the superstar writer of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could, but that’s a different matter). Shannon clearly has plenty to say, but the thought of wading through six more books of this size is more alarming than enticing.

Worldbuilding is a sometimes-contested aspect of fantasy literature. It’s one thing to create a substantial and fully realised setting in which your story is to take place—but how much your reader needs to know about the world is a separate question. Do we need notes on the grammar of its fictional languages, family trees for its major characters, and detailed maps? Sometimes we do, and sometimes these genealogies and grammars can be as absorbing, or more so, than the stories themselves. But sometimes these additions merely seem an easy alternative to thinking about and fleshing out a setting. Shannon begins her book with a chart of the various types of clairvoyant and a map of her fictional Oxford and ends it with a glossary, but none of these add much to the text itself. Despite all this information, often served up in long sections completely separate from the plot around them, the whole thing feels curiously sparse. There’s little sense of the past two centuries’ history that makes this world so different to our own, or of characters’ complex feelings towards their own powers. Perhaps all this extraneous information will come in useful in later volumes in the series. I’m particularly intrigued to learn whether Shannon’s use of Hebrew words (“rephai”, “sheol”) will have greater significance., but to dedicate a first volume entirely to set-up seems rather ill-judged.

In the absence of a particularly interesting setting, we’re forced to pay attention to character and plot. And there’s plenty here that could be potentially absorbing—we have shades of dystopian fiction, revolution, slavery, romance, a powerful and terrifying government. But Shannon’s characters, like her setting, all lack depth. Early on, Paige is faced with a difficult choice between betraying a friend and her own survival. The choice is quickly taken away from her, leaving her morally untainted. Our heroine is brave and kind, defiant and possessed of amazing powers (even in this world of people with supernatural powers). Our villain is entirely evil (if she had a moustache she would doubtless be twirling it). When Paige is given into the care of “a Rephaite creature with dark honey skin and heavy-lidded yellow eyes. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy” we know exactly where this is going. Can she trust this beautiful man or not? (You already know the answer.)

Fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be original to be satisfying. A well-worn plot populated with interesting characters can often make for a great read. But once the setting has been put into place, The Bone Season slips into a sort of by the numbers samey-ness that it never manages to break out of. There’s no joy here, little to absorb or fascinate or terrify. It is almost oppressively predictable.

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