Just before the release of Samantha Shannon’s debut novel The Bone Season there was a critical mass of hype. Samantha Shannon was young! She had gotten a book deal! For seven books! Or something! For a fuck ton of money! It was the new Harry Potter! The story got around. Then the novel came out, and I never heard another word.
Forgive me, then, for assuming I wasn’t going to like it and that Shannon’s debut had lost its hype momentum because it was thoroughly mediocre. Why else would the radar go dark? Well, because coincidence, and marketing, that’s why. If Shannon hadn’t been attending the 2013 World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, I might never have bought a copy. The title is wonderful as is the cover design—two things that influence my purchasing choices to an embarrassing degree, but the story summary didn’t really do it for me. Clairvoyance? Dream walking? Another book set in London? It didn’t sound bad, but nothing about it pushed any of my “commence anticipatory freak out” buttons. So it is a good fucking thing that Shannon’s presence at that con inspired me to buy the book (because I wanted to have it signed) and take it home because you know what? It turns out that The Bone Season is a really enjoyable, well-crafted book. Huzzah.
First impressions: Oh! What a pretty cover! Mm, what lovely thick paper stock! *Turns page.* Oh geezus, a really complicated chart detailing all the different kinds of clairvoyance. I hope this isn’t going to be on the test. *Skims. Shrugs. Moves on. Starts reading. Eyes widen.* Within one page I was sold.
“I like to imagine there were more of us in the beginning. Not many, I suppose. But more than there are now.
“We are the minority the world does not accept. Not outside of fantasy, and even that’s blacklisted. We look like everyone else. Sometimes we act like everyone else. In many ways, we are like everyone else. We are everywhere, on every street. We live in a way you might consider normal, provided you don’t look too hard.
“Not all of us know what we are. Some of us die without ever knowing. Some of us know, and we never get caught. But we’re out there.
Those are the novel’s first four paragraphs, and they worked incredibly well because they operate simultaneously on several levels. We don’t quite know what this is all about yet, and this passage? It could be about any marginalized people. It could be about any sub-culture that gets picked on. The reference to fantasy could even be a slight nod at the marginalization of geeks and geek culture (within the story it is a reference to the fact that fantasy books are banned, but we don’t know that yet, making a small reference like that capable of becoming more loaded, of making associations not yet weighted down by the facts of the story). It is a killer opening, and it is followed by several quick punches of suspense and action. By the time Shannon gets around to explaining more about the world, the characters, and the story, I was entangled: ready to stay and ready for more.
Where you can get The Bone Season: The Book Depository
The bare bones of the plot: there are clairvoyants, have been since the 1800s, and they are thought to be unnatural and dangerous by the majority of the population (no thanks to a fuck ton of vicious government propaganda). If found, they are arrested and either imprisoned for life, allowed to work for the government security force for 30 years before being put to death, or are put to death immediately. Beyond that it is going to be hard to talk about much of the plot without spoilers for one of the book’s earliest surprises. Let us suffice to say that the story shines light on what it might be like to be a part of a highly, violently oppressed group of people. It is easy to draw comparisons to the Jewish experience under the Third Reich. It is horrifying and claustrophobic. It’s something of a supernatural dystopia.
The Bone Season is a book about some really interesting supernatural powers, but it is also largely a book about oppression, marginalization, and rebellion. I like that in a book.
It also had a decidedly sci fi feel to it. Take this passage from the first chapter:
“I had my little place in the chaos. I was a mollisher, the protegé of a mime-lord. My boss was a man named Jaxon Hall, the mime-lord responsible for the I-4 area. There were six of us in his direct employ. We called ourselves the Seven Seals.
“I couldn’t tell my father. He thought I was an assistant at an oxygen bar, a badly paid but legal occupation. It was an easy lie. He wouldn’t have understood if I’d told him why I spent my time with criminals. He didn’t know that I belonged with them. More than I belonged with him.”
The short, matter-of-fact sentences and the choice of fictional names felt far more sci fi than fantasy. Ok, so maybe the Seven Seals sounds a bit like something from a fantasy book, probably a mime-lord could as well. But I-4, Jaxon Hall, and the oxygen bar? More of a sci fi feel, if you ask me, and apparently you did because here you are reading this. The names of the city sectors in general had a high sci fi vibe to them, as well as the setting itself: Scion. I hear that word, one that Shannon invented for the governing bodies responsible for the oppression of clairvoyants/the city itself, and I think: what a perfect fucking name for a corrupt, evil dystopian regime. Spot on. And sci fi as fuck.
Pass not this line, ye who fear spoilers
Ok, now that all of the readers who dislike spoilers have left, let’s get down to details. After a few chapters our heroine, Paige Mahoney, finds herself a prisoner in a concentration-camp-esque penal colony where clairvoyants are swept under the rug by the government, right into the arms of a strange race of beings called Rephaim. The Rephaim think that humans are lowly scum, their slaves, and those not beaten or starved or outright murdered must serve. Paige, however, has a unique gift and it lands her in the hands of a Reph called the Warden.
Warden doesn’t beat Paige or treat her like scum as the other human masters do. He is different, not great, but far more humane, and yet his motives remain indecipherable; he is not human. “His skin was a dark honey gold, setting off two heavy-lidded yellow eyes. He was the tallest of the five males, with coarse brown hair, clothed in embroidered black. Wrapped around him was a strange, soft aura, overshadowed by the others in the room. He was the single most beautiful and terrible thing I’d ever laid eyes on.” Beautiful, huh? The color of honey? The biggest of the males? Nudge nudge wink wink?
Throughout the entire story, there is an undercurrent of attraction, a strange sexual tension to their relationship. Though Paige hates Warden, hates being a slave, and thinks of almost nothing but escape, she seems to feel something for him, if only because she does not want to think she is nothing but a weapon, a murderer, and she saves his life. The Rephaim are vampiric in nature, though they feed on the auras of clairvoyants rather than on their blood. Warden feeds on Paige. Paige is given the chance to kill him, and instead she heals him once, twice (by letting him drink her blood, yup, very vampiric), three times. I didn’t know what to think. Isn’t this the bad guy? Don’t tell me this is going to turn into some (almost) vampire porn with a hint of cardboard cutout BDSM? Or am I just imagining it?
But nope! Just wait until the last couple of chapters kids! You’ll get your (almost) vampire porn. And it will be surprisingly…good. The Bone Season, thank fuck, does not become the sexy times human-on-sort-of-vampire that its title could easily support. (HA. And who is going to write that fanfic? The Bone Season. Really. Shannon practically already wrote it for us.) There is but one make-out scene, and it felt earned, not a cheap exploitation of a trope mash-up. The relationship that develops between Warden and Paige is one founded on the slow accumulation of trust, of a connection forged (literally, in this world) by having saved each others’ lives, and by what turns out to be a mutual goal. It was sexy, and it felt real. I won’t say any more: even in the spoiler section I want to leave you something to discover. What should be obvious by now is this, I really enjoyed this book. You might too.
Thirty-six out of forty-one bowls of skilly.
Where I got it: The book store at the train station, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Where you can get The Bone Season: The Book Depository