The Bone Season is the first novel by author Samantha Shannon who, after receiving a six figure book deal for three books out of a potential seven, is being touted as the next J. K. Rowling. It should be noted that while the circumstances of her book deal is similar to Rowling the content of her fiction is not. Set in 2059 The Bone Season shows readers a dystopian future where many major European cities are under the control of a group called Scion who have risen to power thanks to their hard line control over the world’s clairvoyants (typically shortened to voyants). Scion ruthlessly captures and locks away any who exhibit one of the many varieties of clairvoyance. As in many instances when an iron grip is applied an organized and troublesome underworld has risen. This is where The Bone Season’s heroine Paige steps into the picture as one of the Seven Seals, one of the voyant underworld’s most (in)famous gangs. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare type of voyant, with the ability to enter and observe the dreamscapes of other people. Inevitably, or there might not be much of a story, Paige is captured by the Scion authorities. She is transported to the voyant prison in the ruins of Oxford where she finds the otherworldly race known as Rephaite’s have been manipulating things behind the scenes and collecting voyants to populate their army.
The Bone Season’s world is one that is intricately crafted and detailed down the most minute of levels. Shannon tosses you into the mix with almost nary a word and while things are occasionally confusing the novel is by and large better due to its lack of hand-holding. The most confusing aspects of the book are typically the classifications of the voyants and some of the other made up words and phrases that help the world of The Bone Season feel real. Thankfully, Shannon and the fine folks at Bloomsbury, have included a sort of clairvoyant family tree and a glossary (the latter of which I only discovered at the end of the novel but would have been helpful much earlier). Many of the tropes employed by The Bone Season will be familiar to readers: the dystopian setting, the romantic entanglement between the Paige and the Rephaite Warden, or the heroine with the mysterious gift. Shannon uses these elements as skeleton on which to hang the meat of her story. It is quite rare for a debut author to have at her disposal such a detailed and luscious world. Each detail revealed about the world feels like a natural extension of the previous one; there are no extraneous jumps in logic and there is a tangibility to the world that is amplified by both its familiarity and strangeness.
Perhaps the most startling thing about The Bone Season is how little Shannon decides to explain. Unlike many debut or veteran fantasy authors there a few, if any, long info dumps. There is certainly a lot of information offered across the book but Shannon manages to dole it out in smaller bits. But no one stops to explain details here and there and Shannon leaves many aspects of the world a mystery.Some of that mystery stems from the fact that the story stays focused on Paige as a result readers are only privy to the same information as the central character. We never really known more information than she does. As a result Shannon has crafted a world that we definitely want to learn more about; particularly when it comes to the Rephaite.
While I was fascinated by the world and characters that Shannon has created there were certainly moments when my interest was a bit strained. On general principal I have no real problem with established tropes I did find that attraction between Paige and Warden was a bit of a stretch. I enjoyed their later verbal and mental fencing but Paige’s trunaround from closed off to completely trusting was a bit too abrupt for me to completely feel comfortable. Perhaps I’m more upset that since I felt Paige was such a strong character, well defined in both her flaws and strengths, that her attachment to Warden felt a bit like a betrayal to who she was. I was also not a huge fan of the Rephaite’s leader who while feminine felt like something a bit too close to a mustache twirling villain for my taste. Perhaps I’ve grown a bit too accustomed to a villain painted in a shades of grey (I blame George R. R. Martin). The members of the Seven Seals are perfect examples Shannon’s ability despite their relatively small amount of screen time (mostly through flashbacks). The diverse personalities of the Seven Seals are well defined and frequently contrasted against one another exhibiting a degree of nuance that I wish had extended a bit more to the Rephaite characters in the book.
These stumbling blocks are relatively minor in the grand scope of a novel and things that I’m sure will change as Shannon matures as a write. Again, it bears mentioning that this is the author’s first novel and is a remarkably accomplished piece of work. The Bone Season is a being targeted at an adult audience but there is definite room for the novel to appeal to the YA crowd. In fact I’m willing to bet this is the kind of novel that teens and their parents will come to fight over. The Bone Season marks the entry of a strong new voice in the fantasy world, one who I’m going to enjoy following as her style matures over the years to come. Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season arrives on August 20th.