I have been hearing about The Bone Season for months now. What began as murmurs about a talented young fantasy writer quickly snowballed into a full-fledged media firestorm, crowning Samantha Shannon as the next J.K. Rowling, Cassandra Clare, Suzanne Collins, and the list continues. Shannon has been linked to just about every major female writer of fantasy and a number of young adult authors of dystopiana. For a debut author to have her books being sold in twenty-one countries as well as a deal for a seven book series is almost unprecedented. To add insult to injury, the movie rights for all seven novels have also been purchased by Imaginarium (the brain child of Andy Serkis, who played Golum in the Lord of the Rings films). It was difficult to begin reading The Bone Season with anything but high expectations.
Despite links to young adult megahits like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and City of Bones, The Bone Season is not actually a young adult book, but rather a work of adult fantasy fiction with cross-over appeal. Still, with a nineteen-year-old heroine and narrator, a struggle against not one but two repressive societies, and a touch of love, it is easy to see why this work might be grouped with young adult urban fantasy and dystopian megahits.
The Bone Season, however, should not be written off as the next teen “it” book. This is a grave oversimplification. In fact, as I waded through its dark, violent world, I wondered whether it was appropriate for young adults at all, especially the younger segment of the group. Outside of the subject matter it treats, there is a maturity to the way the author tells her story, both in her prose and in the plot elements to which she draws the reader’s attention.
A key example of this maturity, and perhaps the strongest element of The Bone Season, is the utterly engrossing relationship that develops between the heroine Paige Mahoney and her captor and later friend, the otherwordly Warden. Their deep friendship could easily have fallen by the wayside of an all-encompassing teen obsession a la Twilight, but instead it takes on a much more genuine, mysterious intrigue that held me entranced. The heroine does not perseverate over the hero/villain Warden like a besotted school girl, and it’s refreshing. Rather, the relationship between them serves to further the heroine’s development and highlight the intricacies of Shannon’s world in a complex microcosm. The relationship is the heart and soul of the book, and one can clearly see that it is one of the novel’s most polished elements. This fact is corroborated by Warden’s earlier life as a character in Shannon’s first, unpublished work.
But, what exactly is The Bone Season about? The first book in Shannon’s seven volume series introduces readers to Paige Mahoney, a nineteen-year-old middle class Irish girl living with her father, a government scientist, in London. The year is 2059, and a transcontinental authoritarian regime called the Scion rules London with an iron fist. This fact is particularly problematic for Paige because she belongs to a hunted minority, one that will be exterminated on the spot or forced into thirty years of servitude before euthanasia. Paige is a clairvoyant–a voyant–with the rare ability to assess and invade the dreamscapes of other beings, a powerful and deadly gift.
It was this special power that draws the attention of a leading figure in the Scion London underworld, who convinces Paige to join his voyant gang as his right-hand woman. Streetwise, rebellious, and tough, Paige lives a double life until her luck runs out. After a run in with the Scion police force, however, Paige is transported to a distant detainment facility in Oxford. Kept secret for over two hundred years, Oxford is more than a simple penal colony. It’s the headquarters of an otherworldly race of powerful clairvoyant beings known as the Rephaim who are secretly tightening their control over the Scion government and Earth.
Trapped between the grasp of a powerful, but kindly Rephaim captor named Warden, the oppressive caste system of Oxford, and near-assured destruction at the hands of the Scion, Paige seems to have few options but is not lacking in gumption and wit.
Shannon builds a dark, riveting world with death at every turn for her heroine Paige. Unlike J.K. Rowling, however, Shannon builds this universe with a staunchly minimalistic style, leaving much room for the reader’s imagination. She begins her book on full throttle, taking little to no time to spoon feed her readers as she jets from one action-packed fight scene to the next. Although this can be irritating, it is refreshing to read a book, young adult-leaning or otherwise, that does not walk the reader through every detail with baby steps and repetition. Shannon’s economical prose, compared with that of Margaret Atwood and Anthony Burgess, also make The Bone Season a challenging, distinctly literary read.
The Bone Season also significantly outpaces the young adult blockbusters it has been compared to in its metaphysical depth. Shannon explores the boundary between death and life with the curious literary prodding of a modern romantic poet writ light. I will venture that Shannon’s work may even wade deeper into the philosophical than the later Harry Potter books and certainly The Hunger Games.
Will Shannon’s career reach the same stratosphere as that of J.K. Rowling someday? Perhaps, it is hard to tell. It was the ability to draw both young adult and adult readers that launched J.K. Rowling. Young adult fans expecting The Bone Season to be the next Hunger Games, Mortal Instruments, or Divergent, however, will be sorely disappointed. Shannon’s Bone Season may be too challenging to gain widespread appeal among young adult readers. Unlike J.K. Rowling, she doesnot start out with a lighter, happier hook to draw in her audience. The Bone Season does not inspire the same warm fuzzies as Hogwarts or highlight the enduring power of friendship and love (as of yet) with the same ferocity.
On the pure level of writer’s craft, Shannon also has her work cut out for her to reach Rowling’s level. While The Bone Season is a very impressive debut, better than many a bestselling young adult novel, Shannon still has room for improvement in character development outside of her hero/heroine dyad (Paige and Warden), her dialogue, and her plot pacing.
Whether Shannon ever reaches Rowling’s lofty heights or not, I think it’s clear she has a bright future ahead of her.