Book Review: The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon

The_Bone_Season_coverThis review brought to you by guest reviewer Heather Thayer

Every now and then one reads a book and the primary thought is “editors – the publishing industry needs editors.” The Bone Season is one of those books. It is close to being good – even close to being great – but it fails to get there.

There are lots of books I want to read, and my habit is that when a book catches my eye I add it to my wishlist at www.powells.com and the next time I am in Portland I buy twenty or thirty books at a time (thank you family member discount!). I then have boxes of books sitting deliciously in my spare room, waiting for me to rummage through and pick one that strikes my fancy at the moment. All of which is a long way of saying that I don’t remember if I had read the reviews that touted Samantha Shannon as the next JK Rowling or The Bone Season as the next Hunger Games, but if I had, by the time I read the book I had long forgotten all of it. That’s a good thing, because if I had remembered I would have hated this book. As it was, I read it with interest but mounting disappointment as the book got close to being wonderful but then veered aside.

The Bone Season is set in a dystopian future in which clairvoyants are common but a despised minority. England, where the novel is set, is under the control of Scion, a totalitarian state where clairvoyants often join criminal gangs to stay safe from a government that hates them and hunts them down. Our young heroine, Paige Mahoney, is a member of one such criminal gang. Early in the novel, an event occurs that draws the attention of the authorities to Paige and she is captured, but to her surprise, instead of being executed, she is shipped off to Oxford, a city that has disappeared from all maps. Oxford has been taken over by the Rephaim, a cruel, imperious race from the Netherworld. For two hundred years, they have had a deal with Scion – Scion will round up clairvoyants and every ten years hand them over to the Rephaim as slaves, and the Rephaim (and the captured clairvoyants) will protect the normal humans from the Emim – mysterious vicious monsters also from the Netherworld.

If this sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The world-building is pretty good, but it falls half an explanation short of complete clarity. The tendency of the author to use elaborate made-up vocabulary without explanation or sufficient context to have it make sense doesn’t help. Paige is brought to the Rephaim and told that she will undergo training and trials to see if she will be accepted as one of the fighting force (regarded as collaborators) or will be relegated to the ranks of the “yellow” – clairvoyants who eke out a bare existence in Oxford. We meet Warden Arcturus, a Rephaim who takes on the role as Paige’s Keeper, and from the first moment, the author broadcasts what is going to happen as Paige’s first impression is, “He was the single most beautiful and terrible thing I’d ever laid eyes on.” Obvious much? As might be predicted, Paige has an unusual gift that the Rephaim want (surprise, surprise) and after some token hardships (because that’s how dystopian novels work), she undergoes training, eventually gets her merit badge and then other stuff happens.

The novel lurches on, data dumps (all of the confusing classifications of clairvoyants), interspersed with confusing plot points and unexplained made-up vocabulary. This novel is the apex of “tell, don’t show” as Paige assures us repeatedly that she “loathes,” “despises,” “hates” the Rephaim and Warden in particular, but he seems okay – certainly no worse than Scion. Characters drop in and are instant friends for no reason in a setting rife with betrayals and collaborators, and then they drop out again. Continuity errors abound – characters pop in and out of scenes at a moment’s notice – there when it is convenient, suddenly not there when it isn’t. At one point I think the author kept calling an important place by two different names – as if she had decided to change the name but didn’t catch all of the places it needed to be fixed. All of which begs the question – where was the editor?

And that is the crux of it – this novel is close to being quite good. The world building is fine, it just needed a little polishing. There needed to be a lot more showing, a lot less telling, and better explanation and gradual incorporation of confusing terms. The continuity errors are so obvious – it was some piss-poor editing that they weren’t fixed. There is a germ of an interesting story trying to get out – I feel like we have the author’s first draft of world-building ideas, character sketches and plot outline and someone said, “Hey, I hear YA dystopian novels are all the rage, let’s print this sucker and make it a seven-book deal!” Unfortunately, no one bothered to make it a coherent, interesting whole. There are no character arcs — characters that start one-dimensional (most of them) stay one dimensional. We find out a little bit about one or two characters, but not enough to make them real or make us care what happens to them. Even the main characters do not change over the course of the book – we just learn a few extra facts about them.

Even with all of its flaws, the novel starts to explore some interesting ideas – what are we willing to put up with if the people around us substitute as family? To whom do we owe our loyalties? What are we willing to compromise – what rights are we willing to give up for safety? Unfortunately, although as a reader we can see these questions they are never explored. Paige ends the novel in the same place as she started it – while the events that happened should have caused her to question her assumptions and change, she doesn’t. It is evident that this book was the first in a series and a lot is being left for subsequent books; however, for the reader to be willing to embark on such a long journey the first steps have to show the promise of greater things to come. The Bone Season has not convinced me that the destination will be worth the trouble of the trip.

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