“Paige, you will have two tasks tonight,’ he said, turning to face me. ‘Both will test the limits of your sanity. Will you believe me if I tell you that they will help you?’
‘Not likely,’ I said ‘but let’s get on with it.”
The Bone Season is Samantha Shannon’s first novel, the first in a projected series of seven (seven! No more trilogies here!). It’s a sci-fi fantasy dystopia hybrid, and plays with these genres very effectively in creating the setting, scenarios, and driving the plot forward.
It’s the year 2059. The story begins in Scion London, where clairvoyants are prosecuted for their skills. We are introduced to Paige Mahoney as she works for the criminal underworld, unbeknownst to her father. She’s working for the rather scary yet charming Jax, but everything falls apart one day when she accidentally uses her illegal powers on a train. She’s spotted by Scion police, and runs for her life. But soon she ends up in Sheol I, a penal colony full of stolen voyants from the city. And they want her skills badly.
The first thing that struck me about this book, apart from being very tightly plotted and paced, was that the setting was absolutely alive. Shannon clearly has immersed herself in the setting of her book, which translates fabulously to the page. The world-building has been absolutely nailed. We have government systems (that are anti-voyant), we have rebellions, we have transportation systems, laws on recreational activities, sectioned cities, the sorts of jobs people do, and wider UK context with mention of Ireland, which leads back to more world history in terms of how Scion cities have been created and where the fear/persecution of voyants has come from. As an avid fantasy reader, I have put plenty of books down that have had woolly world-building, but as far as I can tell, Shannon’s world is watertight, and I am one very happy reader!
The opening is relatively exposition-heavy – after all, we are being introduced to another world – but by using first person, the pace keeps ticking over and it feels quite conversational between Paige and the reader. No encyclopedic info-dumping here! It gives us enough to tide us over and seems to tell us a lot. By the end of the book we know that really, we knew very little indeed. I always think that the cardinal sin of fantasy writing is info-dumping. It’s why I still stick to YA fantasy over adult fantasy. In my experience, adult fantasy books seem to think that now they’re writing for adults, they can give themselves the luxury of some unnecessary long-winded info-dumping exposition. This is not the case! I’d say that The Bone Season strikes the balance of world-building verses info-dumping generally very well. This is helped by the fact that Shannon uses very effective description in her writing. Certainly knowing your setting as inside-out as Shannon does has helped fantastically with this.
It’s when we move with Paige to Sheol I (formerly Oxford) that this expands further. One of the commonly regurgitated pieces of writing advice is ‘write what you know’. Clearly Shannon isn’t a persecuted voyant who’s been kidnapped to the penal colony of Sheol I, but her author bio tells us she has lived in both London and Oxford. The influence is clear, and well utilised throughout. There are hints of Oxford, with all its grand colleges, that we would see today, but at the same time she has made it so clearly ‘other’ and different that we as readers have no issue with the transfer between what we know and what we don’t.
Paige’s character develops gradually from the beginning, and I feel like I finally have a hold of who she is by the time she’s been taken to Sheol I. She’s not a voice that grabs you with the first sentence, but you get the impression that she has plenty to say about what’s happened to her, if only you’d sit down and listen to her properly. So I did! She comes far more alive as soon as she has stuff to react to, which in this scenario works to her advantage; it is even played upon by certain characters. And a good opener to react to is when she’s kidnapped by the Rephaim to live in their penal colony.
The Rephaim have come to Paige’s world from the Netherworld, the place between life (the human world) and death (the aether). They rule over Sheol I, essentially farming human voyants. There is a huge status divide between humans and Rephs, and even more so between the humans that succeed and pass their ‘tests’, and the ones who fail – doomed to be ‘harlies’ and yellow-tunic’d cowards for the rest of their days. The kidnapped voyants are taken on by important Rephs to be trained. Paige, unsurprisingly, gets picked by Warden, who just so happens to be the fiance (blood-consort) of Nashira (blood-sovereign), who runs the colony. Warden also has a reputation for not training humans. And yet he chooses Paige. Clearly there is something else at work here, but Paige is oblivious to anything other than the fact that she has been kidnapped and has been sold off to a master like cattle. One word to describe her, in a positive way, is righteous. She’s no saintly do-gooder, but speaks her mind when she can, but also knows when to stop to save her neck. One thing we definitely know about Paige is that she has an excellent survival instinct.
I was worried that all these test and training under the Reph (and Warden) would turn the whole thing into a wannabe-Hunger–Games book. But it doesn’t. It might also explain why there appear to be so few tests to hop up the ranks of Reph trainees; Shannon may be trying to avoid a Hunger–Games-esque scenario. It definitely doesn’t feel like The Hunger Games, and for me is written a whole lot better! This is no Katniss Everdeen, come to be the saviour of the poor; this is Paige Mahoney, determined to save her skin and the few people she cares about from Scion London at the same time. It makes her far more relatable and realistic, which does her plenty of favours with the reader. Paige hasn’t come to preach.
I was also concerned with the character of Warden. My ‘oh god, a love interest which results in the lead losing the ability to think for herself!‘ klaxon was buzzing in my head. Thankfully, this fear was unfounded. Throughout the book, the relationship between Warden and Paige develops as student and teacher, with hatred – or at the very least, dislike – thrown in aplenty. It’s clear Warden has his own agenda going on, and we side with Paige in not wholly trusting him, but our curiousness as readers is also replicated in Paige. It’s this parallel with character and reader that is a real strength of the story, and keeps the reader hooked in what’s going on.
This was a book I could pause with from time to time, which was a refreshing change after both Half Bad and Cuckoo Song, which I practically inhaled. But I did reach that point where I just knew I must get to the end because everything was gearing up and I had to find out what was going to happen! Unfortunately, for me this was at about 1am when I had to be up the next day, which somewhat scuppered my desperate need to finish it. Such is the way of the late-night reader.
The only thing I did feel I wasn’t so keen on at the end was the way it flipped, in the last few chapters, from being something that I thought would be a stand-alone into something that clearly had sequels. I then expected a trilogy, so to discover a projected seven-book series was quite something! And to have a seven-book arc shows a heck of a lot of planning on the author’s behalf on plot, structure, etc. I think I’m just pining for a fabulously written YA book that doesn’t lead into a series.
The things I most liked were: excellent world-building, and tightly, well-executed plot. Everything felt relevant to the bigger picture. Causality rules supreme!
Things I was less keen on: I’m slightly apprehensive about sustaining this level of detailed plot and tight writing over a long series, but I look forward to the second book with curiosity.
The Bone Season: 8.5/10
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