Is ‘The Bone Season’ Good? We Say: It Could Be

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Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season is being greeted as the Next Great Thing in young adult literature. And a population hungry for a new Harry Potter or The Hunger Games already seems to be flocking to it. Shannon has been profiled in New York magazine, the book is The Today Show’s first book club pick, and the book is selling at an okay clip if its decent Amazon rank is any evidence. The funny thing about hype, though, is that it is rarely merited, and often reflects more the flailings of an anxious book marketing department than any kind of real literary-or-even-just-pure-fun judgement. But it is my lot in life to be the kind of person who tests these things out, so I dutifully downloaded it to my Kindle last week to report back to you.

Out the other end, I’m here to tell you that the book is certainly above-average at least on the level of imaginative world-building. It isn’t the same sort of crappy counterfeit fan-fiction epic that has been the trend for some time now; Shannon has a few new ideas to offer. The projected seven-book series follows 19-year-old Paige Mahoney, a resident of a dystopian London. She happens to have a talent for what the locals call dreamwalking, which lets her access “the aether” and do battle with other otherworldly folk there. But Paige’s clairvoyance makes her a target for the ordinary human rulers of “Scion,” the political superstructure of what we call the United Kingdom, who view people with talents like hers as fundamentally dangerous.

Why? Well, it’s a bit complicated. The short version is that The Bone Season’s timeline branches off from our history in 1901. That is the year that the world found out that King Edward VII was actually a murderous fiend, possibly even Jack the Ripper himself, and a clairvoyant to boot. (To be clear, in real life this has been the subject of the occasional apocryphal rumor, but never quite proven — the Jack the Ripper part, I mean.) Once the connection between evil and clairvoyance was thus established, ye old superstitious hysteria kicked in. Clairvoyants were sought out, arrested, and drafted into the security forces for 30 years. At the end of their service, they’re euthanized. So every clairvoyant is anxious to avoid detection and conscription. One way to do so is to join a criminal syndicate of what are called “mime-lords.” Paige herself belongs to a particularly powerful one who call themselves the Seven Seals.

If your eyelids already feel heavy from all that information, I assure you that in writing this piece I have already clarified facts which are not apparent to the average uninformed reader of this book for at least half of it. Exposition, in the beginning, is hard to come by. A glossary is provided at the book’s end, but before that you’re often on your own to figure out what a mime-lord is or why exactly a “spool” of spirits can be wielded as a weapon. The prose is often weighted down by the jargon, even though, had she been inspired to do so, I think Shannon could have turned some lovely bits of prose out of the steam-punk language she’s chosen for her characters. Regular, non-voyant people, for example, are called “amaurotics.” It turns out, if you Google, that “amaurosis” refers to the loss of vision without any disease of the eye. It’s a rather pretty metaphor, but Shannon doesn’t make much use of it.

The unwillingness to link the jargon with meaning is symptomatic of an overall problem, which is to say it isn’t clear yet that The Bone Season is really reaching for larger meaning at all. The details are interesting — I will never turn down an origin story that gets tangled with Jack the Ripper — but Shannon doesn’t end up wielding them in service of a greater storytelling purpose. There are things in The Bone Season that any young woman reading will relate to and be moved by — a scene where Paige confesses her love for a gay character struck me as particularly effective on that score. But on the whole you read the thing and come out with bits of flotsam clinging to your brain — a nicely chosen term, an interesting bit of a character — but no overall sense that you have been presented with an allegory or even an attempt to say anything about anything at all. People talk about authoritarianism, and there’s an attempt to muscle a slave narrative into service, but they are empty calories, deployed for effect rather than for storytelling.

For all their imitators, I always think that people on about wanting to be the next J.K. Rowling or Suzanne Collins or, at the higher end of this stuff, Tolkien or Phillip Pullman, miss something fundamental about their appeal. Say what you will about prose style or their talents for character development, the forefolk of the fantasy epic are very clear on the basic elements of myth. In fact, whenever I leaf through their books now after reading something like The Bone Season, I’m struck by the relative leanness of something as frequently ham-fisted as The Hunger Games. The bells and whistles are there, but the point is to trace the ordinary steps of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth: the call to adventure, the road of trials, the return to normal life. All world-building efforts are subordinated to that fundamental purpose. The story builds the will to learn the jargon, and not the other way around.

To bring in another example: the reason why people are willing to stick with the complicated politics (and endless repetition of the phrase “half a hundred”) of a Game of Thrones isn’t because they really care much about one-vs-many-gods. It’s because they worry about Tyrion’s descent into blackness or Arya’s will to survive. They want Daenerys to rule and to set fire to more evil slaveholders. They’re hoping Sansa gives the shiv to Joffrey. All the funny costumes and silly languages and giving-birth-to-smoke-monsters in the world wouldn’t bring people in on their own. It’s a yearning for a life that has purpose and meaning — which we associate with the heroes and heroines of myth — that give these stories their fundamental attraction in the first place. You stay with the world the author has built out of that attraction, not the sheer force of their imagination alone.

For all her enchanting trappings, Paige, at least she she is in the first book, doesn’t have the pull of a true heroine. Partially, that’s because Shannon has made the curious choice of introducing her to use mid-quest — Paige already knows that the Scion are evil, and to be defeated — and so we are expected to invest in her heroics from the start without ever quite being told why she’s engaging in them. But even once you learn more, as a character she lacks the instant coherence and strong personality of a Katniss Everdeen, or the charm of a befuddled Harry. In a second book we’d have to be convinced that what she’s fighting for is worth it, because the first one, as it happens, doesn’t quite do the trick.