Review of The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

bone seasonThere’s been a lot of hype around this book, considering it’s not even out until August 20.  I’ve heard Shannon referred to as “the next J.K. Rowling” and the book as “the next Hunger Games.”  I can’t say that either of those are even close.  But I will say this: for a 21-year-old literature student’s first published novel, this book was a fun, engaging read and one I definitely recommend if you like dystopian science fiction and fantasy.

The Bone Season is set in the near future, 2059, where people with extra-sensory abilities called “voyants” are hunted down and killed.  There are different levels of abilities, like seers, mediums, augurs, and necromancers.

Paige is more powerful than the average voyant, although she doesn’t yet know what all of her powers are.  She’s a dreamwalker, which means she can actually enter people’s minds.  She works for the Syndicate, which makes her a criminal, but then she would have been one either way.

I said I worked in the syndicate.  Let me clarify.  I was a hacker of sorts.  Not a mind reader, exactly; more of a mind radar, in tune with the workings of the aether.  I could sense the nuances of dreamscapes and rogue spirits.  Things outside myself.  Things the average voyant wouldn’t feel.  Jax used me as a surveillance tool.  My job was to keep track of ethereal activity in his section.  He would often have me check out other voyants, see if they were hiding anything.  At first it had just been people in the room – people I could see and hear and touch – but soon he realized I could go further than that.  I could sense things happening elsewhere: a voyant walking down the street, a gathering of spirits in the Garden.  So long as I had life support, I could pick up on the aether within a mile radius of Seven Dials… All clairvoyance was prohibited of course, but the kind that made money was downright sin.

Paige’s underworld existence comes to a head when she’s stopped and questioned by two guards on a train.  She tries to escape, but finds herself taken to a voyant prison she never knew existed.

There’s a lot more to this story, but I’ll stop there.

If you like a book with complex world-building, you’ll enjoy this one.  It mixes nineteenth century English slang like “penny dreadful” and “toffer” with science fiction terminology.  The vocabulary is complicated enough that there’s a glossary at the end (which would have been helpful for me if I knew about it when I started).  This book requires some work at first, just to figure out who’s who and what everything means.  But once I got a little ways in, this book definitely grabbed me.

It’s a fun read but not a light read – some of the characters are enslaved by a more advanced race, which means things like torture, sexual assault, and branding.  It’s harsh but at least not sugar-coated.  People die.  So many of today’s fantasy books are aimed at teenagers, but this one definitely feels more adult.

I also liked that this book plays around with the idea of who’s actually in charge, and who are the good guys. The characters have complicated histories. However, I do think Shannon falls into a few obvious science fiction/dystopia tropes, like having a heroine that has  unexplained powers and who is vastly more powerful than others around her.  Plus, the semi-romance in this book is weak.  Thankfully, it isn’t too central to the plot.  Paige’s relationships with her friends are actually a lot more interesting.

This book is an interesting mix of genres (fantasy, dystopia, science fiction), it’s got a killer story and characters you’ll root for, and a plot that isn’t entirely unique but still feels new.  There’s nothing shockingly different here, but then that’s what I thought when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – and J.K. Rowling proved me wrong.  The first book in a series is often the weakest, so I look forward to what Shannon comes up with next.

Shannon has already sold the movie rights to Andy Serkis’ production company, The Imaginarium.  Usually when I say a book reads like a movie, it’s not a compliment (meaning the plot and dialogue are fairly simple and action-oriented).  In the case of this book, I think it will make a great movie, but that’s no criticism.  Shannon’s writing, while not perfect, is incredibly visual.   You really see the setting as you read.  For example, there are scenes where she describes performing acrobats in the background, and you can see how that will play out perfectly in a movie.

If you appreciate good world-building, and don’t expect this book to be “the next big thing” you’ll really enjoy it.

Note: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA.

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