The first in a proposed series of books by Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season open in London in 2059. Nineteen year old Paige Mahoney is a clairvoyant in a world where clairvoyance is a crime. Turning her curse to a gift, she works for the criminal underworld, a protégée of ‘mime Lord’ Jaxon Hall for whom she scouts information in return for his protection from the authorities who euthanise unnaturals. Page is a rare voyant – a dreamwalker – and she’s good at her job. All she has to do is not get caught.
But then one day the worst happens: Paige is drugged, kidnapped and taken, not to The Tower, as feared, but to a place she never suspected existed – a hidden city inhabited by a powerful species from another world, the Rephaim, who collect and use voyants for their own nefarious means. Assigned to a cold and handsome Rephaite Warden, Paige must stay alive whilst working out how to escape this prison world.
In its scope and imagination, The Bone Season is an powerfully ambitious first novel from an author who, at the time of writing the book, was herself only nineteen. It’s wonderful when writers take an old rule and do something interesting with it and in The Bone Season, Shannon has taken “write what you know” – in this case, the campus of Oxford University, from which she recently graduated – and then added the audacious twist of making it the setting for the Penal Colony of Sheol 1 where Paige and the other voyants are held captive – surely about as far as you can get from a campus novel whilst still having it set on a campus.
Shannon has chutzpah, that’s for sure. No sooner does she introduce us to an extraordinary future London than she whisks us off to another, even more alien reality. Her protagonist, Paige, is tough and extraordinary, but likeable. And the author has a confident, easy style which allows her to introduce a myriad of unfamiliar words and terms and realities with subtlety and skill, carrying the reader along in what feels like safe hands.
The whole concept is bold and hugely original, more so than The Hunger Games, for instance, to which it will draw inevitable comparison. There really is a lot to like here. But ambition can sometimes get in the way of a good story and, after a gripping beginning, The Bone Season rapidly began to lose its fascination.
One reason was that, despite my best efforts (and despite the list of voyants prefacing the novel) I never fully understood all the different powers. Possibly this was because many of the nineteen types also have a dozen or so sub-sections, resulting in fifty two voyant varieties.
I couldn’t even seem to grasp exactly what it was that Paige does when she Dreamwalks, even though this was clearly crucial to the plot. I just couldn’t quite picture what was happening. There was something lacking in Shannon’s world building, perhaps a case of trying to do too much in one book, which meant that the further I progressed, the more I felt like I’d missed a crucial lecture and was starting to flounder. Paige’s relationship with her ‘Warden,’ also left me uninspired.
A Mills and Boon-esque hate-turns-to love dynamic, the Warden and Paige’s exchanges (and indeed many of Paige’s exchanges with authority) were a veritable groundhog day, with Paige resisting the Warden’s orders, then realising she had no other option, what with her being a prisoner and all, then sulkily complying, then… lather, rinse and repeat. An eventual revelation regarding a unique bond between Paige and the Warden showed promise for the subsequent instalments, but ultimately, the existing soul-mates story in this first part did very little to thrill me.
Added to this, it soon became clear that, despite its glut of ambitious ideas, The Bone Season was heading towards a rather underwhelming climax. It’s fine for a novel to be the first of a series, but it shouldn’t feel like the first instalment of a work. The ending The Bone Season was gearing up for should really have been nothing more than an act one plot turn.
Shannon’s imagination and ambition are definitely to be applauded – and indeed, she has no shortage of admirers; the book was sold in 18 languages and the film rights have been snapped up by Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium. Who knows, perhaps this will be the kind of complex trilogy that spawns its own board game and handbook and lecture series one day.
Any Cop?: But for me, this first instalment overreached, without taking care of the smaller, but equally crucial aspects of storytelling that cause your readers to care about what’s going on. And an eight page glossary can’t make up for that.