Friday, August 23, 2013

"The Bone Season" by Samantha Shannon-- Ambitious but Labored


It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

If you pay any attention to the hype surrounding new books than you have likely heard of The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. The book is described as an urban fantasy by the author because of its setting in an alternate future of London but, for its sheer complexity alone, "The Bone Season" is unlike any urban fantasy I have ever read.

"The Bone Season" is the kind of book you need an official synopsis for because it's only possible to summarize the broad strokes of a story like this. In fact, even after reading the book, I'm not sure I understand it well enough to give a coherent description. What I do understand is that our protagonist, Paige Mahoney, can send her awareness outside of her body and see the dreamscapes of other people. Despite the term dreamscape Paige's ability isn't framed around entering the dreams of other people but rather the aura of other clairvoyants. What this means is-- well, I'm not entirely sure.

Paige is described as a very rare and very powerful clairvoyant (voyant) and as the story progresses her main strength appears to be her ability to launch her awareness at other voyants and attack their aura. She develops her talents under duress during her captivity in the city of Oxford with all the other voyants taken captive during the Bone Season XX.

Bone Seasons are divided into ten-year increments though voyants are continually captured and sent to the secret city of Oxford with some of the prisoners spending years in a prison tower to weaken their resistance to their Rephaim captors. It is explained that the voyants are expected to fight an otherworldly invader, known as the Emim, in exchange for their lives and a freedom, of sorts, to exercise their aetheric powers.

Paige has lived her entire life in different types of captivity. Her life in London is lived in secret as she is always in danger of being arrested for being clairvoyant. In Oxford (now known as Sheol I) she can openly use her powers but if she doesn't live up to the expectations of the Rephaim she will be forced to live in squalor-- if she isn't killed first.

"The Bone Season" is nothing if not an ambitious book. Shannon attempts to take the well-worn trope of a dystopian future with an overbearing government and wrap it in several layers of world building; and to a certain extent she succeeds. The amount of thought Shannon puts into her version of an alternate London is detailed and impressive.

I'd love nothing more than to sing the praises of "The Bone Season" as so many other reviewers are doing but I must admit that I found the book to be confounding instead of compelling. The main problem is that Shannon attempts to lay the foundation for an enormous amount of world-building all in one book. There are several types of voyants, some of which are listed in the glossary in the back of the book, and trying to keep straight all the different types is a daunting task. But categorizing the types of clairvoyant powers is only part of the challenge because their various talents are not defined in a way that is easily understood- the descriptions are there but they don't always make a lot of sense. Shannon also includes various terms that make up part of the vocabulary of her characters (also in the glossary) and most of the definitions can be inferred by context but not always and it adds to feeling that simply understanding the story is more work than it ought to be.

Another challenge is the structure of the book because the first two hundred pages are full of info-dumps that are meant to explain the structure of the story's futuristic society and where the Rephaim fit into the overall story. The narrative does pick up in the middle portion of the book as the information overload is scaled back in favor of character development and it's in these moments that Shannon's talent finally shines through. Themes you expect to see in dystopian fiction, like the toll an oppressive government takes on a society, are touched on but also take a backseat to the fact-driven nature of the book.

The characters in "The Bone Season" are good, but not great. Paige is a protagonist in the Katniss Everdeen mold but she isn't given the same purity of motivation as someone like Katniss and, while it's easy to sympathize with Paige, she isn't a character that the reader can connect to on a deep level. However Shannon does show good restraint in how she structures the overall story and doesn't hit the reader with any heavy-handed romances or villains that ooze evil. But it is impossible to overlook the fact that Shannon overdevelops the number of characters in the book in the same way she overworks the rest of the story and after awhile I stopped trying to keep track of who's who when it comes to the secondary characters. There are a number of compelling main characters but they're never quite given enough time to shine.

In some ways I have a lot of respect for what Shannon tries to do in "The Bone Season." She swings for the fences and sometimes she hits the ball out of the park. She dreams big and doesn't compromise her vision and, while "The Bone Season" may not have tickled my particular fancy it has garnered lots of praise and attention- including being chosen as the first book to be featured in the Today Book Club; quite an accomplishment for a 21-year-old writer. I don't know that I'll be picking up the sequel to "The Bone Season" but I won't write off the possibility either. Shannon has talent and I do think she'll be an author to watch.

Other Reviews of "The Bone Season":
Love Is Not a Triangle
Jen Ryland/ YA Romantics
Ivy Book Bindings
Christina Reads YA
The Flyleaf Review


Heather Roddenberry said...

I agree this book is a challenging read--and you're right, it does take about 200 pages to get through the bulk of the info--but I'm in hope that this laying of copious groundwork is a necessary evil in order for the sequel to continue the story arc in a more seamless fashion. That's my hope anyway:)

This is a fabulous review--thanks for linking to mine:)

Lady Jai said...

Sending you some blog love! Wonderful review. I loved the book too! I'm also taking part in the blog tour. I'll be up on Monday!
Jamie Dement (LadyJai)