“The Bone Season”: A dystopian thriller that delivers

A young author's debut novel about a near-future penal colony for clairvoyants is the ideal late-summer treat

Topics: Books, What to Read, Editor's Picks, Must-Do, The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon, Thrillers, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Dystopia,

"The Bone Season": A dystopian thriller that delivers

There’s time for one last gulpable summer novel before the season ends, and the perfect candidate presents itself in Samantha Shannon’s “The Bone Season.” The author is young (21) and the comparisons to Harry Potter and “The Hunger Games” might be as inevitable as they are glib, but this is an adult work, just a shade too jaded and challenging for YA. It gallops along through an initially perplexing world, daring its readers to keep up even as it sinks in its hooks with crackerjack action, deftly-accentuated conflict and a spangling of souped-up Victorian street slang.

Paige Mahoney is a young Irishwoman living in an alternate-history version of 21st-century London run by a huge corporation called Scion. Her father thinks Paige works in a bar, but in truth she belongs to the syndicate, a network of underground gangs made up of clairvoyants. Their abilities, while innate, are criminalized, and any “voyant” picked up by the authorities is reputed to be either executed or conscripted into an anti-voyant police force. The clairvoyants come in a dizzying variety of types, and the book opens with a chart outlining the different subgroups, as well as with maps of Shannon’s re-imagined British citadel.

Paige loves her gang, despite the ruthlessness of Jaxon, its dandified, cane-twirling leader. Her particular ability — she can sense and, to a certain degree, explore the minds of other voyants — makes her a valued member of his team; Jax calls her his “mollisher.” One day, however, she’s captured by the police and spirited out of the city to a penal colony set up in what once was the city of Oxford. In “The Bone Season” the hallowed university town has been converted into “Sheol I,” a harsh outpost where voyants serve as slaves to an elite race of beings called the Rephaim, whose origins are mysterious. A surrounding no-man’s land planted with mines and roamed by hideous man-eating creatures with the texture and stench of rotting flesh makes escape seem impossible. But escape is just what Paige resolves to do.

At times, “The Bone Season” exhibits signs of Shannon’s inexperience: muddled logistics or finessed plot holes or patchy world-building. Genre pedants will be indignant if this book becomes as big a success as it is likely to be. But Shannon has a faultless instinct for the prerogatives of storytelling, for the engine that makes an adventure novel go, however jury-rigged its chassis may be in spots. The setting she’s constructed is just strange enough to pique a reader’s curiosity, while invoking some of the reliable tropes of urban fantasy: The Rephaim are a bit like vampires and the terrifying Emim waiting out in the woods resemble the faster-moving kinds of zombies. Shannon doesn’t present a detailed explanation of her world’s cosmology until well into the book, but that matters a lot less than you might think. What she does succeed at, and in spades, is instantly latching the reader’s interest to Paige and her fate.

The injustice and casual brutality of the Rephaim’s treatment of their human servants has probably sparked the comparisons to “The Hunger Games.” But while Suzanne Collins’ YA blockbuster exaggerates the decadence of reality TV and late-capitalist entertainment to the point of parody, Shannon has clearly sourced Sheol I in history. From the Atlantic slave-trade to the rubber plantations of Africa and Latin-America, methods for reducing human beings to the status of chattel have been pretty consistent across the board. Collins’ Hunger Games are a cartoonish grotesque; Shannon’s penal colony, apart from the supernatural touches, is all too plausible. It is Paige’s refusal to accept her lot that powers much of the narrative.

Also remarkable is the discipline of Shannon’s prose. Young writers, and especially young fantasy writers, have a tendency to ladle on the description, exposition and emotional prompts, a particularly dangerous inclination when some of the action involves invented incorporeal powers. But more often than not, “The Bone Season” is as economical (if not quite as stylish) as a hardboiled detective novel: “Dawn broke. The clock ticked. Warden just sat in his chair, stoking the fire. If he wanted me to change my mind about the remedy, he was going to be there a long, long time.” Occasionally, Shannon turns a fetching phrase, like having Paige wake from a drugged sleep with her throat feeling “roasted.” And in a particularly nice touch, she gives her London voyants a dashing lingo that combines invented words (“mime-lord” for the clairvoyant gang bosses) with 19th-century cockneyisms (“broads” for “playing cards”; “barking irons” for “pistols;” “cokum” for “shrewd”).

“The Bone Season” is the first book in a projected series, so while the plot is resolved sufficiently to make for a satisfying end, there’s enough left dangling for the installments to come. The novel is already slated for film adaptation and has been chosen for a book club hosted by “The Today Show.” Both announcements raised my eyebrows; Shannon’s invented world is complicated and metaphysical enough to make the movie seem an unlikely proposition (remember “The Golden Compass”?) and this author may not baby her readers enough in the book’s initial chapters to win over the sort of mass audience that laps up Dan Brown. For bolder readers, however, it’s the sort of novel you inhale in two or three days — preferably the long, languorous ones we’ve nearly run out of.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site, magiciansbook.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...