Review: ‘The Bone Season’ by Samantha Shannon

This review is very overdue. For a bit of chatter on why, see this post [link: On Overdue Reviews].

I read The Bone Season in January, in very short order. I was a bit apprehensive when I picked it up that perhaps it would take me ages to get through, as it’s not short at 496 pages. It isn’t a lengthy tome either, to be fair, but physically, the book also seems very heavy for a paperback. It’s worth noting how lovely the physical thing itself is, with its intriguing and striking cover art, super matte finish, and like I said, it has weight to it. It feels substantial to hold.

bone season the

My concerns about taking ages were (as it turned out) baseless, because I blazed through it in three days of binge-reading. My other concern had been needing to do lots cross-referring, because the world Shannon builds is complex and has lots of its own jargon, often with several ways of referring to one thing. While the book does have a glossary of sorts it isn’t exhaustive and I didn’t find it much help personally. I won’t say I didn’t occasionally find it confusing, but by reading fast and ploughing through, for the most part I kept up.

The Bone Season is a dystopian set in 2059, in a world where major cities are ruled by an security force called Scion. We follow nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney, who spent her young life in Ireland and now lives in Scion London. Paige is a clairvoyant – a dreamwalker – working for mime-lord Jaxon Hall of the Seven Seals in I Cohort, Section 4. Voyants are illegal in Scion though, declared unnatural, and when Paige is caught, she is sent to the Tower of London and then to the prison camp of Sheol I.

You probably see what I mean about jargon – it’s pretty impossible to explain the book without it – but the salient point is within the novel, it works. For me at least, the vernacular used by the characters and the narrator were effective immersion and world-building, and while occasionally confusing, I enjoyed that this world was so different to my own. Some readers might find it alienating, but it didn’t bother me. Occasionally I would keep reading without checking the meaning of something, and I generally didn’t find it impacted my comprehension of the actual plot. Shannon has created a richly populated fictional world and made it consistent, which itself I found impressive.

[spoilers this para]
As a dystopian series, certain elements remind me strongly of other big names in the genre – ‘bone seasons’ are broadly similar to the ‘reapings’ of The Hunger Games, the final escape on the train echoes Divergent. The scope of the series, however, seems to be aiming higher and broader than either of those.

What I can’t decide is whether I think this sits within YA or adult fantasy fiction – mostly in bookshops, I see it shelved as general adult fiction, although it has features of either, perhaps sitting nicely at the older end of a YA audience. While it isn’t an all-encompassing rule, the target age group for YA is often the same or a little younger than the protagonist’s age. Paige might be a very mature nineteen year old, but the main character having grown up fast is also a common feature of dystopian and YA. Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior – all these characters undergo experiences which (particularly by contrast to our own societies) are demanding of skills and resilience beyond their age. While Paige is older than all of those characters, at the end of her teenagerdom, we still hear about her young life and Scion’s effects on it. 

[spoilers this para]
What this book also has in common with other recent YA-fictions, which bothered me a little, was the supernatural beings who are far older than humans. I’m sure this trope didn’t spring into existence with Twilight, but the Paige/ Warden relationship through the course of the book confused me no end. In general, romanticising relationships with massive age gaps makes me feel uneasy, especially when one party so obviously has a huge amount of power over the other – I would prefer that Paige and Warden had become close friends by the end of the book, rather than involving the romance element. Warden and Terebell being the ‘good’ Rephaim, who don’t mistreat humans, and this being some sort of magnificent service they are doing them, reminded me heavy-handedly of Twilight, its ‘vegetarian’ vampires, and Bella’s constant gratitude to Edward for not killing her (so romantic// sarcasm). I realise though that I’ve read one book of what will eventually be a seven-part series, so I’m withholding judgement on Shannon’s handling of that relationship for now.

I enjoyed how complex the relationships that Shannon develops for Paige are, and the strange confusion of feelings she has for various people in her life. Her relationship with Jaxon I found especially interesting, a cocktail of admiration, gratitude and fear.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Bone Season, and will (eventually) be reading the sequel. I’d certainly recommend it to fans of the genre – while there might be elements you recognise from other stories, it is its own original concept, with its own political landscape and complex population of characters to navigate.

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