Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season is potentially the most hyped debut in speculative fiction right now. There are movie rights and talk about Shannon being the next Rowling or Collins. With all of that build up, I was tempted to just skip it, but I decided that I'd give Shannon's debut a go to see what all the fuss was about. While I can't say that she's the next Rowling or anyone else for that matter, I will say this is a strong debut that has many parallels to popular series that are bound to keep The Bone Season flying off shelves for the foreseeable future.  Those who dismiss Shannon because of the hype surrounding the novel will be making a mistake, there is plenty of promise in the world and characters here and I am confident that Shannon's next effort will be even stronger. This is a novel with strong bones, even if I found it less than breathtaking.

Many of the comparisons surrounding The Bone Season center around the YA market and there are good reasons for that, despite the fact that the novel seems to be marketed to adults. With it's dystopian setting, strong young protagonist, and lack of anything parents could deem objectionable except for a little violence there is a strong case for this being at its heart best suited for a YA demographic. Not that I don't enjoy well written YA, because I certainly do and there is plenty to enjoy here.

Set in a future where people with psychic abilities called voyants are hunted and either executed or forced to serve the state for a set period before being euthanized, The Bone Season follow Paige Mahoney, a voyant whose ability to dream walk makes her life forfeit if she is ever discovered. Paige lives a life of crime, existing by using her talents in extortion and criminal endeavors in exchange for the protection and sanctuary of the voyant syndicate. When she kills two members of the voyant police in an attempt to escape execution, her entire world is thrown off its moorings when she discovers almost everything she knows about the world is a lie. Captured voyants are not all killed, but sent to secret prison in the forgotten city of Oxford. This prison is run by the Rephaim, a race of otherworldly beings who are behind the governmental persecution of voyants. Paige is chosen to be the servant of Warden, a powerful Rephaim with mysterious motives. Paige longs for escape but realizes that in order to have any chance she must find a way to get closer to him and the secrets she's sure Warden is hiding.

Paige is a strong and capable heroine with a layered past of her own. The strength of her narrative voice is the strongest asset of the narrative. Paige is no shrinking violet, she's a cunning and shrewd judge of character and a fighter besides. She doesn't believe in the strength of her gifts, but through the course of the story grows to understand that she is more than she has allowed herself to be. Paige's refusal to be a pawn or to simply accept her servitude is her defining characteristic and she certainly suffers for it, but readers will find it easy to cheer her on. Shannon wisely weaves Paige's back story into the plot, revealing bits and pieces along the way that help to give us a glimpse of the experiences and events that shaped her.

The concept of voyants, with its many subdivisions with each possessing a unique power set and mechanisms is an intriguing concept, but I feel that Shannon's delivery of the details and mechanics fluctuates too widely to be truly effective. Readers who read a lot of fantasy novels will likely feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of unfamiliar terms and lack of explanations. The voyant system lacks the level of detail and clear rules that most readers of speculative fiction expect, and I felt that the author should have spent more time explaining how things worked and less time trying to impress us with depth through terms that at best meant very little than psychic power variation number 42. If there had been less variation, I believe that there would have been time for explanation without bogging down the narrative. The early half of the novel felt choked with terminology that never was clearly explained. The second half was much better, focusing more on the action and less on world building. The imbalance left the pacing a little lopsided, but the strength of the protagonist and the fresh concept makes these mistakes fairly easy to forgive.

The action sequences were tight and well written, and the budding relationship between Paige and Warden was far more compelling than I had expected. There was no rush into one another's arms and no appearance of the hackneyed love triangle that so often pops up in novels aimed at a YA market. The relationship develops slowly as Paige and Warden grow to understand one another.The secondary characters were fairly engaging despite being pushed into the background by the tight focus on Paige. Shannon does a lot of things right, and I am certain this novel will find a massive audience. Whether not it will find a foothold with long time SF/F readers is anyone's guess.

I may not agree that The Bone Season is the next big thing, but that hardly matters. Shannon has delivered a engaging if imperfect debut, and I have every confidence that her career is off to a spectacular start that will only rise as she gains more experience. I'll definitely give her sophomore novel a look, the strength of her characters and concept alone make it worth it.

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