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.

The Glorious Mess of Rainbow Rowell

rainbow-rowellRainbow Rowell is a beloved YA author, whose books, Eleanor and Park, Attachments, and Fangirl cause people to swoon all over the place.  I read Attachments recently, and I loved it so much that I wanted to marry it.  I finished Fangirl  about half an hour ago and was weeping into my oatmeal over something that in any other book would have been inconsequential but that I related to completely.  Eleanor and Park was game changing in its depiction of prickly, unconventional characters.  What is it about Rainbow Rowell that inspires such a passionate response in her readers?

“Eleanor was right.  She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”

EleanorPark_cover2-300x450

 

 

There are many things to love about Rowell’s work – her finely drawn characters, her refusal to be twee, her tendency to give even most of the villains emotional layers, and her funny and poignant dialogue.  Rowell’s voice as a writer is endlessly clever but also deeply heartfelt.  Above all else, I think that people love Rowell is that she’s not afraid to be messy.

Eleanor and Park and Fangirl are YA (Fangirl can also be considered New Adult since it’s characters are in college). Attachments is about adults.  All of these people have real problems, many of which are not resolved at the end of the story.  Some of the characters are attractive in a conventional sense, but many are not.  They have dreams that don’t fit the norm and they don’t know how to make their dreams fit into adult expectations.

“I think I missed my window,” he said.
“What window?”
“My get-a-life window. I think I was supposed to figure all this stuff out somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-six, and now it’s too late.”
“It’s not too late,” she said. “You’re getting a life. You’ve got a job, you’re saving up to move out. You’re meeting people. You went to a bar…”
“And that was a disaster. Actually, everything has been a disaster since I quit school.”
“You didn’t quit school,” she said. He could hear her rolling her eyes. “You finished your master’s degree. Another master’s degree.”
“Everything has been a disaster since I decided my life as it was wasn’t good enough.”
“It WASN’T good enough,” she said.
“It was good enough for me.”
“Then why have you been trying so hard to change it?”

file92862

Rowell’s books have a kind of romance that seems both completely miraculous and completely obtainable.  Cath can barely leave her room, and her family is as messy by the end of Fangirl as it is at the beginning, but she finds love, and friends, and happiness.  Eleanor, in Eleanor and Park, is not conventionally beautiful and she has to steal soap to avoid smelling bad.  Lincoln (Attachments) lives at home and his mom makes him lunches for work.  And yet, all these people – people who are not stylish, or rich, or beautiful, or suave – all these people are written as people who deserve romantic, passionate, honest, faithful love.  And they get it.  So maybe we can too, regardless of where we live or what we look like or how much we make.

I love reading romance as fantasy, but I love Rowell because she suggest that romance is not fantasy.  We can have the same level of romance while we are paying bills and fretting over our weight and taking final exams as we could if we were Regency romance heroines dancing with a Duke.  We deserve love, seeking love is a worthy endeavor, and we deserve to find love if we are willing to work for it.  Rowell celebrates the messiness within and without us, and promises us happiness in the midst of all this mess.

“Happily ever after, or even just together ever after, is not cheesy,” Wren said. “It’s the noblest, like, the most courageous thing two people can shoot for.”

412XH9UvpbL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

 

Double Book Review: Adaptation, and Inheritance, by Malinda Lo

cover of adaptationAdaptation and Inheritance are the two books that make up a Young Adult sci-fi duology by Malinda Lo.  Adaptation is a stronger book than Inheritance, as it sets up a possible government conspiracy, with aliens, by using creepy imagery in a unique way.  Inheritance is supposed to be the payoff book, but it fails to satisfy because the characters never become very proactive.  But both books are interesting in their portrayal of a teen who is struggling to resolve a love triangle between herself, another girl, and a boy.  The gender issues are well done, but they need a stronger story to fit into.

Adaptation starts off with two teenagers, Reese and David, trying to get home from a debate tournament.  Their plane is grounded because planes all across the country are crashing, apparently due to large flocks of birds flying into the engines.  Reese and David and their coach try to drive home, but they face an increasingly dystopian, terrifying landscape, with tanks blocking exits and forcing them to take multi-hour detours.  Ultimately, there is a car crash, and Resse wakes up in strange hospital in Nevada, with scars that seem to heal almost instantly, strange new mental powers, and no memory of what she’s told has been several weeks in the hospital.

Cover of Inheritance

Inheritance picks up precisely where the last sentence of Adaptation leaves off.  I won’t discuss the plot much, because it’s all a spoiler for Adaptation.  David and Reese continue to try to deal with their new powers as well as the conspiracies that surround them.  They also have to deal with their relationship, which is complicated by the fact that Reese loves David but also falls in love with a mysterious teen she meets at home in San Francisco, named Amber.

The strength of the first book is in its creation of an atmosphere of dread.  Reese’s realization that the airport is running out of food, the tanks that line the highways, and the horrifying stop for gas are masterfully done.  The fact that all this is triggered by birds that seem to fall from the sky adds a surreal, creepy element.  The hospital scenes add body horror and paranoia.

Unfortunately, after Reese leaves the hospital, the story dials back down and never regains that urgent, visceral sense of creepiness.  No one seems terribly upset about martial law.  There’s no apocalypse, just earlier bedtimes.  Even in the second book, nothing seems terribly urgent.  Important, but not urgent.  You don’t get a sense of deadlines, or of high stakes.  It seems like whatever happens, Reese and Amber and David will continue hanging out and being angsty and going to school etc.  Towards the end of the second book, there’s an attempted rape that is clearly supposed to fill the reader with terror and disgust, but it’s a terribly clichéd and ham-handed attempt to convey our heroes’ helplessness.  In my view, that was so profoundly communicated by Reese’s earlier mandatory hospital exam (one in which she is forced to strip with no sexual text or subtext) that I lost all remaining interest in the story.

quote from inheritance

Art by Malinda Lo

Where the story shines in being uncompromisingly, unapologetically positive in its depictions of characters who are variously multi-cultural, multi-racial, gay, straight, bisexual, and polyamorous.  Reese’s confusion about her relationship with Amber and her reluctance to identify as bisexual is realistically portrayed.  This is also a rare case in which a polyamorous relationship is discussed in positive terms.  Reese attempts to be ethical and honest with Amber and with David, although sometimes it’s hard for her to be honest with herself.

The problem with the romance angle is that, as well-intentioned and refreshing as it is, there’s nothing to convince the reader that either Amber or David would actually want to be with Reese.  She’s nice enough, but she’s an unrelentingly bland character, which is especially problematic given that she is the book’s first person narrator.  Reese is the ultimate Mary Sue – she has no flaws other than being boring, and everything and everyone revolves around keeping her safe and happy even when the people trying to do so are in as much danger as she is.

Quote fron Inheritance

Art by Malinda Lo

The final problem with the series with that Reese never takes charge of her own story.  It’s perfectly realitic that a teenaged girl would not be able to act decisively and effectively against a government and alien conspiracy, but it’s not much fun to read about someone shuffling around helplessly for two books.  Every now and then Reese makes a grand gesture, but the gesture involved telling everyone everything she knows, and then going back to her room while the major players return to taking control of the narrative.

I thought the first half of Adaptation was remarkable in it’s depiction of surreal violence and paranoia, and I loved seeing the positive portrayal of LGBT characters.  But ultimately this duology lacks punch.

Friday Book Club: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

SWT-Book-ClubsThis month the Friday Book Club is reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs.  This is a modern gothic that crosses all kinds of genre lines.  The protagonist is a teen-ager and so are most of the supporting characters, so this book could easily fall under the category of Young Adult.  There are aspects of horror and fantasy.  The setting involves historical fiction, there’s a touch of romance, and, with the time travel aspect, even a bit of science fiction.  Meanwhile, the layered story and marvelous use of language have made a place for this book on shelves of ‘literary fiction’.

Cover of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar children

The inspiration for Miss Peregrine came from the author’s collection of vintage photographs, many of which are included in the book.  While the book would be scary, exciting, and emotionally powerful without the inclusion of the photos, being able to see the photos vastly enhances the story.  More on this next Friday!

untitled-1diql1x

A sequel to Miss Peregrine is coming out in Januaray 2014, and Tim Burton is signed on to direct a movie version of Miss Peregrine.  The tentative release date for the movie is July 2015.

img-thing

The author of Miss P. is the wonderfully named Ransom Riggs.  Ransom Riggs is a many-faceted guy.  He grew up on a farm in Maryland and then moved to a neighborhood in Florida that sounds pretty similar to the one described in Miss P.  He credits the boredom of his Florida life with forcing him to learn to use his imagination and make up stories.  Like the characters in Miss P, he went to a school for unusual children, although they weren’t THAT unusual (he attended the prestigious and unconventional Pine View School for the Gifted).  Today, he writes screenplays, fiction, and non-fiction, and blogs on the website mental floss.

The author himself!

The author himself!

You can read more about Ransom Riggs and his projects at ransomriggs.com   I recommend checking out his site as it is packed with interesting stuff!  And enjoy Miss Peregrine – it is delightfully atmospheric and spooky, perfect for a blustery November day.

Mini Review: Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet is Book Two of the Lunar Chronicles Series.  This series, while not strictly a romance series, is a high-quality romance-friendly crossover, and its inventive steampunk/science fiction twists on fairy tales make it a must-read for genre fans.  I enjoyed the world-building and the twists on fairy tales.  I do recommend that readers read the first book, Cinder, before reading Scarlet.  Cinder is the book that sets events in motion, and frankly, I think is a stronger book overall, although both books are compelling.  For a full length review of Scarlet, check me out at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.