Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

THE BONE SEASON is probably the best example of why it is such a bad idea to brand books as "the next (insert popular title or author here)": expectations. When you compare a debut novel or author to an established work, it really isn't fair. That established work already has already proved its worth to its fans; they've read and liked the story, and developed an emotional connection to it. Making comparisons like "the next J.K. Rowling" is basically asking Potter fans, many of whom have grown up with the series from childhood, to embrace this new author with the same fervor before she's even really had a chance to prove her worth. Shannon actually had a great response to this comparison: "we don't need a 'new J.K.' because she is still writing and still amazing." Even she seems to realize that the comparison isn't really adequate or fair.

That said, THE BONE SEASON - when it's allowed to stand on its own merit, in its own category - is actually a pretty decent book. I'm not going to lie, seeing many of my trusted reviewers slam this weighty tome made it a sight less appealing, but I like to experience things myself before making up my mind, so I decided to give the book a try anyway. The premise is confusing. It's set in future dystopian London. Alternate universe future dystopian London, because in this world, there are psychics (called "Voyants" or "Unnaturals") and an evil government called Scion. Basically, Voyants are hunted down and executed by Scions, unless they're employed by the government and then they're kept on for thirty years, whereupon they "retire" upon completing their contract (a.k.a. murdered). Our protagonist, Paige Mahoney, is a refugee from Ireland and is the most powerful class of psychic: a dreamwalker, or someone who can supposedly invade and possess people's minds.

One day, Paige is captured and she finds out the truth of who - or what - is really behind the inception of their oppressive Scion government. A powerful and immortal race of (alien?) beings called the Rephaim. They come from the same place where psychics draw their powers from: the aether (which I kind of imagined as looking like the Lifestream from Final Fantasy VII). Paige is kept in one of their prisons, along with a bunch of other psychics, where they are tried and trained Hunger Games/Vampire Academy style, and their achievements place them on a hierarchy. They are being trained to fight flesh-eating (zombie?) monsters called Emim (or "Buzzers"). Paige's trainer/master is a Rephaim called Arcturus (or "the Warden" or "Blood-consort"), the fiance of the Rephaim's evil queen, Nashira Sargas. He's quiet and mysterious and seems slightly less evil than the other Rephaim, but he's still obviously hiding something and isn't above reminding Paige of their relationship.

I'm going to interject here, and say that one of the biggest deterrents to this book is the world-building. It's original, and once it gets rolling, I was able to appreciate all the effort that went into the story, but the first couple chapters are literally non-stop info-dumps and expositional scenes and dialogue. Everything in here has a name (sometimes multiple names for the same thing), which is possibly what drew the Rowling comparisons, but in Rowling's book, the reader is gradually introduced into the Wizarding World, whereas in THE BONE SEASON, we're not introduced so much as thrown into it headlong without so much as a life preserver to keep us afloat. It really takes a lot of leg work to keep everything straight and many readers don't want to work to enjoy a story.

I did love the writing, though. I was really impressed by the quality of the prose; when it wasn't bogged down by clunky expositions, the writing was beautiful. Once I got to about page 150, I couldn't put the book down. There are elements of many different books in here, which I think has a lot of potential for cross-over appeal. Parts of the book reminded me of Stephenie Meyer's HOST (aliens taking over humanity for their own purposes, a romance between a sympathetic alien and a human); parts of the book reminded me of R. Lee Smith's SCHOLOMANCE (an evil school for developing magic with morally ambiguous teachers and students); parts of the book reminded me of Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT (an alternate universe dystopian set in just one city, leaving you to wonder what happened to the rest of the world); and parts of the book reminded me of THE HUNGER GAMES (cruel and unusual competitions for the benefit of a sinister government). Any of these books would have been far better comparisons, although none of them quite hit the mark, either. It's far better to let a book speak for itself, and quietly achieve success on its own merit. You're less likely to be disappointed that way. Reading this with no expectations certainly heightened my experience.

Also, there's a slow-burn romance for those of you who like that sort of thing. ;)

4 out of 5 stars.

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