We’re reading THE BONE SEASON by Samantha Shannon

6 Sep

Tara Isabella Burton explores a built-up area.

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Bloomsbury, HB £12.99

It is difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for Samantha Shannon, whose debut novel, the sprawling, series-booting The Bone Season came out from Bloomsbury on August 20. Bloomsbury’s PR people have been heralding her arrival on the fantasy-dystopia scene with an uncomfortable blend of hyberbole, hagiography, and hubris: a seven-book deal, complete with film optioning courtesy of Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis and Bridget Jones’s Diary‘s Jonathan Cavendish, eighteen foreign-language sales, a breathlessly-updated blog, fan art. Bloomsbury’s press release features plenty of adjectives like “staggering” (the young age of the author) and “dizzying” (her imagination) while saying comparatively little about the book itself. The problem is – there is nowhere to go but down. At best, The Bone Season only confirms Bloomsbury’s soaring expectations; at worst, Shannon is prematurely consigned to the purgatorial obscurity of one-hit-wonders.

The good news is: it could be a lot worse. Blending the Dickensian and the futuristic, Shannon’s dystopian Scion, an alternate-history London, is a delight of a concept. (Nutshell backstory: Edward the VII may or may not have been Jack the Ripper and/or had psychic powers: chaos ensues) Here, Cockney-accented petty criminals engage in illegal clairvoyant activity under the service of powerful “mime lords”; the terrifying urban sprawl of Dickens’ imagination is a prime candidate for reinvention as the archetypical dystopian metropolis (the novel’s best character, sadly underutilised, is essentially Fagin with magic.)

That this world is introduced to us by means of tortured exposition and plenty of world-specific jargon (there’s a glossary in the back) is somewhat forgiveable: Shannon’s vision is sweeping enough to buy her a degree of readerly goodwill. But the novel never quite convinces as a fully-realised world. The facts come in plentiful and fast, supplemented by page after page of explanatory map and diagram, but the story holding them together often feels devoid of real atmosphere, reading in its driest passages like a four hundred-fifty-page book proposal rather than a novel proper.

Much of this is down to the voice of the narrator, Paige, a nineteen-year-old clairvoyant-criminal turned unwitting heroine. She sounds like a perfectly normal teenage girl in twenty-first century London: a wasted opportunity to create mood through character. While we’re told that Paige, like a suspiciously high number of teenage protagonists in fantasy novels, possesses special potential far beyond that of other clairvoyants, we get little sense of what makes her special at all; she is likeable enough, with little trace of the irritating solipsism or soppy romanticism that have afflicted recent notable YA heroines, but she’s hardly distinctive or well drawn. (That much of her most emotionally revealing backstory is given in late-stage flashbacks hardly helps.)

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that we leave behind the most interesting elements of the story within the first hundred pages, after which Paige is kidnapped and taken to a hidden alt-Oxford, a penal colony-slash-detention centre for clairvoyants controlled by the enigmatic race of Rephaites, who have struck a devil’s bargain with the Scion government as a means of fending off a common enemy (the Emim, mysterious and anodyne). This alternate Oxford is, despite plenty of exposition, rendered more sketchily than Scion – surprising, given the pre-eminence of the musty Oxonian aesthetic in fantasy from Harry Potter to Philip Pullman. (At least Paige’s taciturn Rephaite “keeper”, Warden, emerges as an intriguing source of Brontean broodery.) The introduction of a second new atmosphere, with its own myths and rules, soon becomes overwhelming in a novel already over-stuffed with the fruits of “world-building”.

Still, Shannon’s prose is extremely readable, even if the pacing verges on the sluggish (here, too, it’s possible to wonder if external forces are to blame – the book is the first of a planned seven, although the story as told seems better suited for a trilogy), and her vision of Scion, mime-lords and all, remains ripe with epic possibility. The ending of The Bone Season hints at more Scion-centric sequels, and with it, the possibility of Shannon hitting her authorial stride. If future books deliver more concretely on the potent promise of the concept, Scion may prove well worth revisiting.

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