Born with a gift that allows her to enter the minds of other voyants, nineteen year old Paige Mahoney is forced to live a double life
In an alternate, future version of London, Scion rules all. Two hundred years after the Bloody King, Edward VII, reputedly unleashed a plague of clairvoyance on the world, voyants have struggled against the stigma of being unnatural, while normal humans – amaurotics – have worked to oppress and kill them under the auspices of Scion, an all-encompassing, dictatorial government. Born with a gift that allows her to enter the minds of other voyants, nineteen year old Paige Mahoney is forced to live a double life: nominally the privileged daughter of one of Scion’s top scientists, she is known in other circles as the Pale Dreamer, an enforcer for a powerful criminal syndicate of voyants. When an unexpected encounter forces Paige to find a brutal new use for her gifts, she finds herself captured by Scion and taken to an impossible place: the lost city of Oxford, now called Sheol I and repurposed as a penal colony run by the Rephaites, a race of beings whose existence, while known to Scion, is a secret kept from the general human populace. Put into the care of the Warden Arcturus Mesarthim – a powerful Reph with secrets of his own – Paige is forced to contend, not only with the barbaric rules of this strange, parasitic society, but also its politics. For behind the predations of Scion lurks an even bigger battle: the struggle between the scheming, eternal Rephaites and the brutal, cannibalistic Emim, a second race seeking entry to our world and held in check only by the combined efforts of Scion, human voyants, and Rephs. With only outcasts for allies, Paige must learn who to trust and how to survive, fast. Because Nashira Sargas, the ruler of Sheol I and Warden’s consort, wants Paige’s gifts for herself – and once she takes them, Paige will die.
It’s difficult not to approach [The Bone Season] with raised expectations
Every so often in publishing, the magic debut happens: a process whereby some sinfully young and talented writer is plucked from obscurity, given a massive advance and touted as a wunderkind, such that their first novel breaks into our collective awareness on a cresting wave of publicity so glowing and ubiquitous as to make even the most well-adjusted and charitable author shudder with jealousy. Such is the case with Samantha Shannon, a 22-year-old Oxford student whose first novel, The Bone Season, has netted her a six-figure advance for a projected seven-book series with Bloomsbury, with the film rights already snapped up Imaginarium. As such, it’s difficult not to approach the book itself with raised expectations: especially in the case of new authors, advanced publicity has a decidedly Heisenbergian effect on how we view their work, and depending on how jaded we’re feeling at the outset, that can either be a very good or very bad thing. It’s therefore relevant to note that, in my case, I approached the book in the spirit of piqued curiosity: a little bit sceptical, true, but also very willing to be impressed.
As is hopefully apparent from the plot summary above, The Bone Season is a conceptually dense novel, and though this ultimately plays as a strength, there are certain instances where it devolves sharply into weakness. The opening chapters are a case in point: the first thirty pages in particular are thick with infodumping and the rapid, often clumsy introduction of endless neologisms, not all of which are immediately relevant to the plot. Even for someone like me, who loves SFFnal jargon and language, I often found myself side-eyeing the decision to introduce multiple synonyms at once, particularly in instances where only one term ended up being reused or relevant later, and then but rarely. A particularly glaring example of this can be found on page 152:
Before I could hear any more, I was blinded by a vision.
As an oracle, Nick could send soundless images through the aether. He called them khresmoi, a Greek word. I could never pronounce it, so I just called them his ‘snapshots’… A moment later, I blinked, and the images were gone. p. 152
This section not only gives us no less than four synonyms for an ability that barely features in the novel – visions, images, khresmoi, snapshots – but, having taken the time to explain both the technical term and Paige’s preferred slang (the former of which is never mentioned again), Shannon still ends up using the simpler, more intuitive word anyway. Neither is this a lone incident; the book is littered with this sort of lexicographical double-handling, but given my own fondness for neologisms and history-pilfered brogue, if it were done more subtly, I likely wouldn’t have minded. Instead, the vast majority of these asides feel forced, didactic and – at times – just a little bit patronizing in their assumption that the audience can’t infer meaning from context. For those of us who enjoy such things, the joy of a neologism-heavy novel is to learn new words naturally, the better to fully immerse ourselves in the world itself. Dropping in clunky explanations ruins that completely; and for anyone else, it’s a downright chore.
On the plus side, part of the reason these sections stand out so starkly is the skill with which Shannon writes otherwise. Barring the infodumps, her prose style is engaging and intelligent; there’s a real love of language that underpins not only the worldbuilding, but the novel itself. The idea of a magical London isn’t new – indeed, it’s long since become a trope in its own right – but this particular blend of alternate history, clairvoyance, otherworldly races and scientific dictatorship, despite the potential for confusion, works extremely well. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still holes in the plot-logic, of course, but in terms of setting, it’s easy to see why The Bone Season has already garnered so much attention. That being said, the sheer busyness of the world and background impacts the story in unexpected ways. Despite my overall enjoyment of the book, certain shifts in focus kept on rubbing me the wrong way, and it took me a while to puzzle out why: there’s no overarching theme that really ties the disparate narrative elements together, and as such, every time the novel transitions between plot threads, it ends up feeling like a subtle shift in genre, too.
The plot feels more YA dystopian, complete with brutal initiation ceremonies, cruel-yet-beautiful […] and the requisite sexual tension that relationship invariably brings.
As detailed in the opening chapters, Paige’s life in Scion London – with its seedy voyant underworld, futuristic technology and oppressive government – feels like a highly original species of gritty, SFnal mythpunk: V for Vendetta meets Neverwhere. When Paige is captured and taken to Sheol I, however, the plot feels more YA dystopian, complete with brutal initiation ceremonies, cruel-yet-beautiful rulers with ever-changing eyes, a Super Handsome Brooding Older Dude who singles Paige out because she’s Super Special, and the requisite sexual tension that relationship invariably brings. With the introduction of the Emim – a monstrous, supernatural threat – and the medieval setting of Shannon’s lost Oxford, the story starts to read more like a traditional fantasy novel with YA undertones; Paige’s flashbacks to her earlier life in London, however, feel more like urban fantasy, and after that, it’s back to YA dystopian for the finale.
It’s not just the shift in setting that gives this impression, either: it’s also down to the different plot threads, the type of characters which populate each section, and the varying tasks Paige undertakes at different points in the story. As such, there’s a real distance, both physically and structurally, between the world of Scion London and Sheol I, but as disorienting as these shifts in mood could be at times, I’m still not prepared to call them a bad thing. Certainly, their overall synthesis could be smoother, and I had a niggling issue with gauging the passage of time throughout: by the end of the novel, we’re told that Paige has been in Sheol I for six months, but even though various earlier asides mention that it’s been weeks or months since her arrival, this isn’t really reflected in the events themselves, or even in the surrounding narration, which otherwise gives the impression that only a couple of weeks have passed. But otherwise, you’re left with a compelling and very readable mashup of popular SFFnal subgenres – exactly the sort of thing to appeal to a geeky heart. True, the sheer number of secondary characters populating the various plots means that many of them could do with more fleshing out, but Shannon has six more books up her sleeve with which to do just that, and as far as The Bone Season goes, the characterisation is skilful enough that the little on offer goes quite a long way.
The only exception to this rule, if it counts as that, is the budding romance between Paige and Warden, which, right from the outset, reminded me uncomfortably of a book I loved as a teenager, but whose problematic elements are so deeply entrenched that my adult self winces even to remember them: Sara Douglass’s Threshold. In fact, it’s worth taking a moment to compare the central relationships of both novels, because there are some striking similarities. In Threshold, a white woman ends up enslaved in a foreign country ruled by POC, overseen daily by an older, powerful MOC, Boaz, who strips her of her original name and rechristens her Tirzah. In The Bone Season, Paige, a white woman, ends up enslaved in what is essentially a foreign city ruled by POC (the Rephaites are universally described as having bronze, tan or honey-coloured skin, which struck me as being contextually problematic) to an older, powerful MOC, Warden, who renames her XX-59-40. Both Paige and Tirzah possess rare magical gifts they must struggle to conceal, but whose importance gradually unites them with their captors. Both struggle to reconcile this bond and its implications with their status as captives, and the privilege of better food and protection it affords them compared to their friends and fellow slaves, who understandably loathe their oppressors. Both Boaz and Warden have royal status within their respective societies and Mysterious Pasts to explain their increased sympathy with the slaves beneath them; as such, both men also struggle against the suspicions of their peers, and respond by treating Tirzah and Paige coldly; they also both teach their respective love interests how to use their magical gifts in a context of secrecy. And as these are master/slave romances in the truest sense, there’s a decided power imbalance to how things proceed: at various points, both Warden and Boaz abuse the power they have over Paige and Tirzah, withholding information, issuing orders and crossing personal boundaries, both to suit themselves and, ostensibly, for their partner’s own good.
As you can imagine, then, I wasn’t that great a fan of Paige and Warden’s relationship (which is also very Bella-and-Edwardish at times, not least because Warden is about two hundred years old and has eyes that routinely change colour from gold to red depending on when he’s eaten). Though the comparison with Boaz and Tirzah of Threshold isn’t perfect – Boaz is magically and physically abusive in a way that Warden isn’t – there were still enough problematic elements that I found it offputting, and just as pertinently in a narrative sense, I didn’t feel the pairing had any chemistry. Paige’s internal monologue about Warden fixates, for the vast majority of the book, on how much she hates and mistrusts him; and apart from noting, when she first sees him, that he’s “the single most beautiful and terrible thing I ever laid eyes on” (pg. 52), there’s little in the way of hidden attraction to mollify the strength of her negative sentiments. Rather, we’re left to infer that the romance exists through the presence of signpost tropes, and while that’s a subtlety I’d ordinarily enjoy, it falls down in this instance because only those tropes – rather than the interactions on which they’re built – point to romance.
I was waiting for the inevitable first kiss without ever actually wanting it or feeling the pairing was was merited.
All of which means that, the whole way through, I was waiting for the inevitable first kiss without ever actually wanting it or feeling the pairing was was merited. Instead, I found myself wondering how much more compelling I’d have found Paige and Warden’s relationship if, instead of being a preordained romance between two pretty people, it was simply a mentor/student bond between an older, politically mysterious teacher and his talented, outcast protégé. Which is, perhaps, a rather unfair thought to include in a review: a book may have many faults, but failing to be a different, hypothetical book isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, I feel it’s a relevant observation to make: not because Shannon’s understandable failure to psychically preempt my personal preferences in any way constitutes a failing, but because the pairing of older, magical men with young, special women is something we’re seeing a lot of in SFF right now; and as this particular example was written so shallowly that you could quite easily turn the romantic bond into a platonic one without changing the plot, it stands out as both a missed opportunity for something more complex and, in a novel where so much else is original, as a piece of cultural mimicry.
It also, sad to say, lead to the inclusion of the single most bizarre and dissonant aspect of Shannon’s worldbuilding in the whole novel. In a climactic scene where Paige recalls a failed past attempt at intimacy with a human boy – one she had to abandon due to being overcome with sudden, debilitating pain – Warden explains that their incompatibility was due to Paige’s partner being amaurotic.
“The mind of an amaurotic is like water. Bland, grey, transparent. Enough to sustain life, but no more. But a clairvoyant mind is more like oil, richer in every way. And like oil and water, they can never truly mix.”
Something occurred to me. “If voyant minds are like oil’ – I weighed my words – “what are your minds like?”
For a moment, I wasn’t sure he was going to reply. Finally, in a thick, velvet undertone, he said one word.
“Fire.” p. 373
And the thing is, even though this comparison is clearly engineered to foreshadow an intense romantic, sexual connection between Paige and Warden, in the wider context of the novel, it makes no sense whatsoever. If voyants experience intense physical pain whenever they sleep with amaurotics, then how do voyants ever manage to keep their identities secret, or maintain the sorts of relationships they must logically have with amaurotics? Surely, such an important piece of information would long since have been discovered by the criminal voyants in Paige’s London; and yet, she knows nothing about it. If the difference between amaurotics and voyants is mental, why does it result in physical pain – and why is that pain apparently only triggered by sex, rather than any other type of contact or closeness? Particularly given the fact that this same logic is used to explain why even touching Warden is unusually intense, it doesn’t make sense that only sex with an amaurotic would bring about the opposite effect. In a novel whose worldbuilding is otherwise detailed and painstakingly constructed, this throwaway scene felt extremely false: a last-minute inclusion to emphasise the specialness of Paige and Warden’s connection made without any thought as to how it would work with the rest of the novel.
These elements aside, however, I genuinely enjoyed Paige as both a protagonist and a narrator. Particularly when it comes to exploring the world of Sheol I and assessing her options in an undeniably dangerous situation, Shannon does a good job of showing us Paige’s inner thoughts and turmoil. Though still prone to making quick, emotional decisions, Paige is also calculating and able to admit her mistakes; as such, she feels like an extremely plausible character, someone who weighs her options and does her best to survive without wholly compromising her passion or integrity. All too often, I feel, the western obsession with active rather than passive heroes results in characters taking energetic, compulsive action just to keep the plot going, even when it’s clearly a stupid thing to do. Paige, by contrast, is a refreshingly intelligent character – a heroine whose smarts are demonstrated, not just by her actions, but by when and how she chooses to take them.
The Bone Season [is] a solid debut, and an engaging first instalment in a series I’m keen to read more of
Overall, then, I thought The Bone Season was a solid debut, and an engaging first instalment in a series I’m keen to read more of. It’s a flawed novel, certainly, but flawed in interesting ways, and more often as a consequence of ambition and enthusiasm gone awry than due to any lack of talent or originality. If this is the sort of thing that Samantha Shannon is writing now, then I can completely understand Bloomsbury’s excitement at having found her so early, and look forward to seeing how both author and series develop in the future.