Samantha Shannon’s Fantasy Novel, ‘The Bone Season’
The book club craze may have hit its nadir. The big moment came a week ago when the NBC morning show “Today” announced that it, too, was starting a book club, presumably because so many of its competitors have them, and anointed Samantha Shannon’s novel, “The Bone Season,” its first pick. Seated in front of a backdrop on which the words “Call me Ishmael” were clearly visible, the “Today” team explained how a debut novel by a 21-year-old unknown had snagged this distinction. Not one bit of the five-minute segment concerned exactly what Ms. Shannon has written.
That’s because “The Bone Season” leapt out to “Today” as a human interest story, not as a book. We learned that it bears some resemblance to “The Hunger Games”; that Ms. Shannon intends a seven-book series, just as J. K. Rowling did; that she and Ms. Rowling share a British publisher (though not an American one); and that “The Bone Season” has been optioned by a production company linked to Andy Serkis, a k a Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films. Time constraints presumably kept “Today” from dropping the fact that Ms. Shannon’s book has a vampire angle. None of this hype betrayed any awareness of the “Today” show audience demographic.
It got worse. The “Today” news anchor Natalie Morales said she had found this book by reading a newspaper article about it, and such reports have focused on Ms. Shannon’s hitting the jackpot, not on her writing. And Al Roker, the “Today” weatherman who recently slept through his own 6 a.m. “Wake Up With Al” show on the Weather Channel, plugged the Google Hangouts that “Bone Season” fans would be able to enjoy. Google Hangouts are a way of conducting e-chats, rather than reading books.
But what about the newly minted “Today” show book club members? They have to read this thing. And they will find that it has the tenor of young-adult reading, with a special nod to the occult and to role-playing games based on priggish, elaborate protocol. Ms. Shannon begins the book with a promise she can’t keep: a fanboy-friendly chart identifying many more kinds of seers, mediums, augurs, sensors and things that end with “-omancer” than this book can possibly encompass. For those interested in Rhabdomancers, Halomancers, Theriomancers, Daphnomancers, Cleidomancers et al., a dictionary would be better.
Ms. Shannon’s first big break came when she was hired as an intern by David Godwin, who later became her agent. Mr. Godwin’s office is near the Seven Dials junction in London, apparently a good neighborhood for buying supplies for the budding spiritualist. From these seeds sprang “The Bone Season,” a one-note dystopian portrait of London in the year 2059, 200 years after a totalitarian government has taken over. The book’s main character, 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 and bears a not-coincidental resemblance to Oxford University, where Ms. Shannon graduated from St. Anne’s College this summer. The “bone season” of the title is a culling of the best of the Sheol 1 prisoners that occurs every 10 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 recognized as elite. (See “The Hunger Games.”) She is scrappier and more resilient than her fellow prisoners. She is also gifted with greater psychic powers. Paige is a dreamwalker, which means that movie audiences will some day be treated to phantasmagorical scenes of Paige wandering through what “The Bone Season” calls the aether. 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, color-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, Ms. Shannon has given her Rephaim an elaborate sci-fi back story, too.
There are not many other good reasons to plow 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.
Ms. 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). But these self-styled goddesses favor futuristic Victorian regalia, stilted language and irritating power trips. “I am Nashira Sargas,” says the colony’s six-and-a-half foot leader, also identifying herself as “the blood-sovereign of the Race of Rephaim.” (A fellow prisoner whispers, “Is this a joke?” No, it is not.) 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 how the British monarchy gave way to this circus, why Paige’s Irish origins enhance her combativeness, and how much Joseph Campbell Ms. Shannon will use in shaping this heroine’s journey.
It is unfair but easy to cite the kind of howler writing that slipped past the editing process for “The Bone Season.” (“This place was called No Man’s Land for a reason: it belonged to no one.” “I was drawn toward him as if a flower to the sun.”) It’s also easy to be distracted by Ms. Shannon’s surprisingly erudite vocabulary, by her use of “psychopomp,” “astragalomancer,” “hibernophobia” and the like. Perhaps she will broaden vocabularies everywhere, but it’s not yet clear what else she can do.
Had it been allowed to slip quietly into bookstores, “The Bone Season” might have been noticed for the large scale and elaborate detail of its still-unformed fantasy world. Ms. Shannon could easily write six more books filling in gaps left by this one. It would be a shame if the “Today” anointment celebrates this young writer’s gift for trivia-quiz lingo at the expense of her as-yet-unseen larger vision.
It debuted at number 7 on NYT, but that might be because Bloomsbury cut the price for the ebook to less than $5 less than a week after release.