The Bone Season: a novel’s best intentions fall flat

The Bone Season

**Warning: some mild spoilers may be contained below. Please read at your own risk.**

Like most fiction these days, Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season is an interesting idea that’s poorly executed.

Released in 2012, Shannon’s first in what will be a series showed some promise—mainly in the rich, detailed world she envisioned for her characters. But the story’s poor structure and lack of emotional development leaves readers scratching their heads.

Perhaps it’s worth noting that Shannon was only 21 at the time the novel emerged. Many of the story’s faults could be attributed to lack of experience. As a young writer, she is undoubtedly still honing her craft—an exercise that may bear fruit in the series’s second installment, The Mime Order, due out in October of 2014. But be that as it may, the last page of The Bone Season left me wanting.

The novel’s weakest point is also one of the cornerstones of good fiction: structure, and, subsequently emotional development.

The novel features Paige Mahoney, a nineteen year old young woman living a double life in Scion London. Unlike the so-called amaurotics, read: Joe Blow like you and me, Paige is a clairvoyant. She is possessed of a set of supernatural skills and a unique one at that, allowing her make contact with other people’s dreamscapes—essentially the locus of their most interior thoughts, emotions, and dreams. Unfortunately for Paige, her very existence is a criminal offense; clairvoyance is illegal and results in either imprisonment/death or indentured servitude that eventually results in state-mandated execution.

Shannon has clearly done her legwork when it comes to the creation of her universe. The novel includes a chart of the hierarchy of clairvoyance, as well as maps of London and Oxford. Yet while these details help set the scene, they often get in the way of the story. Paige often spends so much time explaining to us why some clairvoyants are more important than others that we never have access to her emotions or her thought processes—and when we do, it’s in the most perfunctory way, with Paige telling us what she is feeling rather than us experiencing it along with her. By the time she’s running for her life across the rooftops of London, I have little invested in her survival. In fact, the only thing that kept me reading was a moderate interest in seeing this particular dystopia played out.

Basically, Paige fails the clown test. This handy little trick was described to me by a friend in graduate school, and it goes like this: when you’re thinking about a character and how they would behave, have them walk into a room wearing a clown wig. When you or the reader picture them in all their rainbow-curled glory, what does that make you feel? If imagining your character in this way yields no response—no “oh, no way, that’s completely out of character” or “yeah, that’s totally what she would do,” then you and your reader haven’t really connected with the character. It’s a great way of testing how a character’s actions feel or, in Shannon’s case, don’t feel.

The problem is that Paige is angry. All the time. She’s angry when she’s in Scion London, and she’s angry when she’s transported to Oxford. She’s angry with her Keeper, and she’s angry with her fellow clairvoyants. Along the way there are small moments of tenderness, but overall there is a constant, steady rage. And in light of some of the story’s events, we can forgive some of her anger or at least understand its source, but there are so many missed opportunities for development that I want to bang my head against the wall.

Without giving too much away, there are several scene cuts that ruin any chance of maturation in Paige. The most egregious of these is the transition from the decision to engage in battle and the preparation for said battle. By the end of one chapter, the decision to fight has been made, then in the next chapter it’s time to go to war. This is a real missed opportunity and one where I just wanted to smack my hand to my head in exasperation. In omitting the scenes of preparation and the subsequent tension and character interaction, Shannon fails to develop what will presumably be a significant relationship between Paige and another character in the coming sequel. After several hundred pages of Paige’s insistence that she hates this character, her sudden change of emotion later falls flat amidst groans and eye rolls.

I’ll spare you any further details in an effort not to spoil the book for any other potential readers, but let it suffice that even in the face of imprisonment, torture, death, and, oddly, romance, I could not connect with this character or this novel. At times lazy, at others maddeningly tedious, it’s mediocre at best.

For more information about Shannon and her series, visit her website: http://www.boneseasonbooks.com 

Image credit: http://www.boneseasonbooks.com/retailers

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