SO FAR, everything written about the debut novel by 21-year-old Oxford graduate Samantha Shannon has been about the hype. It’s the next Hunger Games, we’re told.
The Bone Season
It’s going to be a seven-book series (shades of Harry Potter). It’s been optioned by a production company linked to Andy Serkis (that’s Gollum in Lord Of The Rings to you and me). Even in America, it was the first choice for the first edition of NBC’s Today Book Club. But what’s it actually like?
A one-note dystopian portrait of London in 2059, its heroine, Paige Mahoney, works as a stealth mind reader for a crime boss named Jaxon until she is nabbed for a thought crime (see 1984) and shipped off to a penal colony. It is called Sheol 1 (which bears a not-coincidental resemblance to Oxford University). The “bone season” of the title is a culling of the best of the Sheol 1 prisoners that occurs every ten years so that they can fight off the Emim, a caste of bloodsucking baddies. Paige will be part of Bone Season XX.
At the penal colony, Paige is quickly recognised as elite (see The Hunger Games). She is scrappier and more resilient than her fellow prisoners. She is also gifted with greater psychic powers. She can invade the minds and penetrate the auras of others, even though almost everyone else at Sheol 1 is some kind of psychic too.
This book enforces a rigid, colour-coded class system that places Paige high above others and causes her captors, the Rephaim, to refer to themselves with great, formal grandiosity. At last, we reach a reason for reading The Bone Season: though “Rephaim” has biblical provenance, Shannon has given her Rephaim an elaborate sci-fi back story too.
There are not many other good reasons to plough through her capably written but fun-free epic. Paige is by far the book’s best developed character, and her main attribute is feistiness. Character development is so weak that a boy named Seb, whom Paige meets only briefly, is said to haunt her through hundreds of pages of tepid action scenes. But the effect of the occult on The Bone Season is to keep emotion at bay, since spirits exist in all stages of sentience. Living creatures don’t exactly vanish even when they leave this mortal coil.
Shannon shows her greatest specificity in sketching grandes dames with fancy names (Nashira, Pleione, Alsafi – from mythology, astronomy and other classical sources, with a strong emphasis on Arabic) who like futuristic Victorian regalia, stilted language and irritating power trips.
Much is made of the fact that Paige is entrusted to Arcturus, Nashira’s official consort, as yet another sign of Paige’s specialness. Perhaps she is closely watched because she has powers that Nashira covets. We will have six more books’ worth of chances to find out more. I wonder how many adult readers will do just that.