THE BONE SEASON
By Samantha Shannon
Samantha Shannon is a 21-year-old graduate of Oxford University, and so we might think of The Bone Season as among the first fruits of a generation raised on Harry Potter. More on what that means later, but for now let’s just note that the comparison is particularly apt as this is projected as the first of a seven-part series dealing with the adventures of a young person just learning to use their magical powers.
In this case the heroine is Paige Mahoney, a kind of clairvoyant known as a Dreamwalker who lives in a London that is part of a police state called Scion in the year 2059. This is a future with a twist, however, as it’s also the product of an alternate history. Bone Season history diverged from our own two hundred years prior to the start of our story, with the arrival of a mysterious race of Netherworlders known as the Rephaim in 1859. Which is when all the magic started happening.
Paige soon gets in to trouble in Scion and is whisked off to the ruins of Oxford U, which is now being run as a kind of prison colony-cum-school of magic by the Rephaim and is where her training will begin. We learn the Rephaim harvest clairvoyants every ten years in what are called “Bone Seasons”, and this is Bone Season XX. Paige’s new identity is XX-59-40.
When launching a series this ambitious a first volume has to spend a lot of time laying some groundwork. Shannon does this with admirable economy, especially given just how much she has to get through. The book even begins with a flowchart mapping the seven order of clairvoyance as well as their more than fifty sub-orders, and ends with a nine-page glossary explaining terms like Querent and Amaurotic (the latter are the new Muggles: norms without any supernatural powers). It’s all quite inventive, but also reads a bit like a Dungeons & Dragons handbook, if you know what that’s like.
The plot is as complex as you’d expect from all of this elaborate infrastructure. The mysterious and not very likeable Rephaim claim they are here to save us from the dreaded, flesh-eating Emim. In fighting the Emim the Rephaim apparently need the help of gifted Voyants like Paige. However, one doesn’t need a psychic gift to realize that they have more on their agenda. As if you would trust anyone with a name and title like Blood-consort Arcturus, Warden of the Mesarthim anyway. Or people who snarl lines like “The word of a human means less than the incoherent salivation of a dog.”
Now that’s incoherent!
Nicely dressed in a full wardrobe of psycho-speculative trappings (ghosts, guardian angels, soothsayers, tarot card readers, etc.), The Bone Season is a very effective, albeit very conventional adolescent fantasy. It has a YA flavour, but in recent years this has become an all but essential ingredient of bestsellerdom. Why this has happened is hard to say (more fallout from Harry Potter?), but in any event you recognize a family lineage here not only to Harry, but to other franchises running through such recent megahits as the Twilight series, the Hunger Games, and even Fifty Shades of Gray (which, for all its naughtiness, was probably the most psychologically juvenile series of all). Scheduled to be published in huge numbers in twenty-one countries, The Bone Season bids fair to join this select company.
There are predictable elements. No one can escape Sheol I (that’s Oxford), but of course a jailbreak is all anyone thinks about. Paige, our plucky heroine, will, we know, not be happy with being a mere number, and struggle to assert her own budding identity and independence. She will find some true friends along the way, fall in love, and be betrayed. Her tremendous gifts will be both a blessing and a curse.
This might be Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, or any other high school, anywhere.
But great genre fiction doesn’t mess with a formula. It delivers what readers want, with just enough of a twist to keep them on their toes. Shannon does that here, and at a pace that never once lets up. The results should appeal to all recent graduates of Hogwarts. Or of Oxford, for that matter.
If there is any difference now.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 1 2013.