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The Bone Season

Not Quite on Rowling's Turf, But Not A Bad Start For A N00b:

A Review of Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season

When The Bone Season was first published in 2013, it was met with a media storm similar to the frenzy surrounding Christopher Paolini, the then nineteen-year-old author of Eragon in 2003. Everyone wanted to probe the mind of the 21-year-old woman who wrote it. Hailed as a possible "next J.K. Rowling" by Forbes magazine, Samantha Shannon, a college student studying literature at St. Anne's College, Oxford, remains one of the youngest authors to scale above the tenth place spot (the book reached 7th) in the New York Times Best Sellers List.

The Bone Season's appeal can be largely attributed to a plot and series of characterizations that favor what one could refer to as the "freak" complex: almost all great stories within the realm of science fiction and fantasy are defined by the struggles of an otherwise ordinary person who possesses "freakish," supernatural powers. Paige Mahoney, the central protagonist in The Bone Season, is one such young woman. To more clearly demonstrate the book's general success, especially in the realm of youth fiction, it is helpful to discuss aspects of the world that Samantha Shannon has created and its salient themes.

Paige Mahoney is a nineteen-year-old "voyant" (which is short for clairvoyant) living in Scion London, also referred to as SciLo, in 2056. She explains right at the beginning that being a voyant during this time was illegal and punishable by death, even though clairvoyance is a condition one has no control over. She reveals, "We are the minority the world does not accept" (1). As a result, she belongs to an underground crime syndicate named The Seven Seals, a group of seven voyants with distinct abilities all controlled by one mime-lord, Jaxon Hall. Paige herself is a "dreamwalker," or "jumper," one of the rarest forms of clairvoyance. She can cognitively "walk" into a mind, causing unfathomable pain and madness to its owner during the possession. If she stays too long, or pushes too far within to the "midnight zone," she can physically kill her victim. The order of voyants, from least rare to rarest is as follows: soothsayers, mediums, sensors, augurs, guardians, furies and jumpers.

It is because of her rarity as a voyant that Paige invariably follows a different path when she is finally trapped and caught by a member of the NVD, or Night Vigilance Division. Typically, captured voyants are killed as a public spectacle or warning to incite fear and compliance among the masses. In Paige's case, she is captured, injected with AUP Fluxion 14, or "flux," which causes a crippling pain referred to as phantasmagoria or "brain plague." She is then transferred to the Tower at the heart of SciLo, tortured in and out of consciousness, until she is finally brought back to her senses. She and other abused voyants are then uncharacteristically corralled and transferred to Sheol-I in Oxford, a city that had long believed to be completely destroyed nearly two hundred years ago. Here she is given her first encounter with the Rephaites, tall, majestic, otherworldly humanoids with distinct, unknown powers. They are told that two hundred years ago, Earth met its threshold to contain its millions of drifting, sentient spirits and this caused "deep rifts in the aether" causing the planet to be exposed to the Netherworld. This allowed the Rephaites to descend onto Earth, inhabiting Oxford to serve as a protective gateway against the new danger of the Enim, or "'dreaded ones,' […] carnivorous and bestial [monsters] with a taste for human flesh" (457). They can rip the spirit right out of clairvoyants and have a penchant for tearing human beings limb from limb. They are also called "Buzzers" for the disquieting waspish or hive sound that occurs when they are drawing near.

Thus, certain exceptional clairvoyants are hand picked and kept in the Tower until a period of ten years has passed. This "decadal harvest" is referred to as a "Bone Season" (52). Paige belongs to Bone Season-XX. Each voyant is selected and assigned a Rephaite keeper who becomes his or her master. Paige is selected by Arcturus, Warden of the Mesarthim, blood-consort to Nashira Sargas, the blood sovereign and ruler of the Rephaites, because her distinct aura is unique in comparison to the other voyants. She is then subjected to a series of tests that are intended to prepare her to fight the Enim, until Nashira discovers that she is in fact a "walker," an aura that Nashira wishes to possess herself. The rest of the novel is a complicated story regarding Paige's developing powers as a dreamwalker, her encounters with other voyants, Rephaim and Enim within Sheol-I, various abuses, and her struggle to save herself from having her own aura ripped from her body to become part of Nashira's eclectic collection.

The novel is certainly a page-turner, one that I found I could not put down despite myself. Here are a few critical examinations regarding the text that can shed more light on Shannon's successes and failures.

1. Read the glossary before reading the book

If I could go back and restart the process of reading this novel from the beginning, I would have read the glossary first. Often a mix of Cockney, creative interpretation, and just, plain weirdness, Shannon uses words that leave you groping in the dark. Words such as "cockum" (cunning), "duckett" (vendor), "meatspace" (Earth), "flam" (lie), "janxed" (broken), "reef" (to hit or strike), and "tooler" (a child pickpocket) are only a handful of the many, many words that only become known or familiar with constant reference and context. I applaud Shannon's audacity to employ, in many cases, parts of what appears to be a new language in the novel, but a simple footnote at the beginning of the story providing guidance may have been helpful.

2. The second base "sex" scene is, well, embarrassing

Shannon's age certainly shows the most during sexually charged banter and one cringingly uncomfortable make-out session. Paige becomes involved in what can be properly defined as a classic Stockholm syndrome relationship with her keeper Arcturus, who she finds to be the "single most beautiful and terrible thing [she'd] ever laid eyes on," (52). The generic "I am your master and you will do as I say" game will cause most readers to roll their eyes as it is so obviously devoid of any real life experience in her choice to use words that sound fake, forced, and downright "cheesy." When Paige eventually engages in a blasphemous make-out session with Arcturus the constant internal dialogue of "Stop. Stop, Paige […] Don't stop, don't stop… Don't stop" is enough to make anyone uncomfortable with how strangely and "80's porn-like" it is written (410-11).

3. Shannon understands violence well

The fight scenes in The Bone Season are by and large fantastic. She uses language that conveys the physical moments in a way that makes them cinematic. Here is one such example, "16 clutched his throat. The other man lunged at me. I ducked his arm, swung my leg up, kicked his exposed stomach. My boot sank into soft fat, winding him. The girl took me by surprise: she grabbed a handful of my hair and pulled. My head crashed into the metal wall" (202). Moreover, the way characters speak during these violent scenes is authentic as well. After dreamwalking into a Rephaite's mind to protect herself, the otherworldy creature falls to the floor screaming, "Get her out, get her out," she screeched. "She walks!" (105). These frequent passages of voyant fighting were by and large my favorite parts of the novel.

4. Slow down there, cowboy

Although the novel is a striking accomplishment for such a young and promising writer, other critics and myself agree that Shannon could have taken more time to develop her world and the characters within it. Sometimes certain ancillary but important characters seem to lack interiority and distinct features. The plot also felt forced toward the end, as if she suddenly knew she had a publication deadline or did not wish for the book to move into the 500+ page threshold. I do have faith, however, that Shannon will only improve as she continues to write the additional six novels slated for this series. I look forward to her next installment, The Mime Order, in January 2015. It should also be of note that Andy Serkis has recently bought the movie rights to the book and will serve as the director via his company Imaginarium Studios.

Review Scoring System: Grading A-F
Originality of ContentB+
Plot StructureB+
Potential Achieved86.29%

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