21-year-old author Samantha Shannon is living the dream. Her novel The Bone Season debuted at #7 on the New York Times bestseller list, and it's already been optioned by Andy Serkis' production house. But what's really behind the hype on this dystopian fantasy novel? A lot of amazing, but also a lot of problems.
On first glance, The Bone Season sounds smashing — it's premise is original, and as the first of seven novels it promises a lot of juicy worldbuilding. Our hero Paige is a member of the oppressed "voyant" (psychic) class in a near-future, alternate-history England. In this world, King Edward VII was revealed to be Jack the Ripper, and the first voyant, in the nineteenth century. Since that time, English history has diverged from our own, with London becoming the fascistic city of Scion, devoted entirely to rooting out voyants and maintaining a tight hold on the population.
Paige is part of an organized crime group of voyants, who control Scion's underworld. They commit weird crimes like forcing the ghosts of ancient painters to create new masterpieces that they can sell on the black market. And of course, Paige is one of the most powerful voyants ever, a dreamwalker who can project herself into other people's minds or dreamscapes.
Sounds awesome, right? A dystopian future with psychics, starring a superhero mind controller? It starts out that way, but very quickly this novel becomes choppy and confused.
Worldbuilding for Worldbuilding's Sake
Once Shannon has built up the incredible world of Scion, and introduced us to Paige's crew, she suddenly shifts gears. After Paige is arrested, we discover that the rulers of Scion are actually just a puppet government controlled by a mysterious race of creatures from the "Netherworld" called the "Rephaim." The whole thing where the Scion authorities stalk and imprison voyants? It's all just a scam so that these talented humans can be shipped to Sheol I, the Rephaim's homebase in Oxford, where they will be trained to use their psychic powers to fight the Emim, AKA zombies from beyond the universe.
The bulk of the novel is set in Sheol, where Paige and her cohorts are abused, trained, forced to obey their Rephaim masters, starved, punished, and abused again. There is endless, nonsensical worldbuilding. If a voyant fails to be a good soldier in the Rephaim army, he or she is consigned to become . . . a street performer! So basically Sheol is full of human voyants who are either super soldiers, or starved, abused acrobats and singers. Why would the Rephaim do that? The system makes about as much sense as a porn movie plot. Also, of course, Paige has conflicted feels for her Rephaim master/abuser/protector/Heathcliff figure. Cue more worldbuilding about his past.
I like a novel that isn't afraid to mix things up, and lead you down a dystopian future path only to drag you by the hair into a gothic horror fantasy world. The problem here isn't the genre-blending. It's the growing realization that all Shannon wants to do is build worlds, and once she's done building one, she'll come up with any old excuse to just build another. Done building Scion? Let's go to Sheol! Sheol all tapped out? Then let's find out about Scion's crime syndicates! And back to Sheol's demonic power structure!
We don't get any character development — other than Paige going from hating her Rephaim to, well, you've read Wuthering Heights, so you know what's going to happen. All we get are more details larded onto more worlds.
Not only does this book come with a map, but it comes with a taxonomy of all the different kinds of voyants (there are almost a hundred). Creating a vast set of types that your characters can fit into is not the same as creating characters, but The Bone Season really hopes it will be. Same goes for the glossary of futuristic and psychic terms you'll get at the back of the book. By the end of the novel, you get the feeling that you've wandered through an exercise in worldbuilding for worldbuilding's sake — it's not an unpleasant feeling, but it's not exactly like reading a narrative either. It's more like reading some well-written rules to a new role-playing game.
Sorting Hat Fetishism
The other main problem with The Bone Season is the way indulges massively in what I'd call Sorting Hat fetishism. After the Harry Potter books had fans dying to know what house the Sorting Hat would assign them, and Hunger Games had people thinking about all those districts, a subgenre of Sorting Hat books began to appear. Probably the most obvious is the Divergent series, which is all about what happens if the Sorting Hat puts you into a cohort for life, based on some notion of what your true "self" really is.
As I already said, The Bone Season takes the Sorting Hat to its absurd, extreme conclusion, with its taxonomical chart of possible voyant identities that determine everyone's talents and proclivities. But beyond that, the novel also fetishizes all the markers of different sorted identities — almost every day, Paige wakes up to find a new, color-coded uniform that she has to change into in order to signal whether she's passed a particular test or ascended to a new role in the Sheol I system. Likewise, all her fellow voyants are dressed (or undressed) to signal their positions.
In some ways, Shannon has done an excellent job inventing the nightmare college version of the Harry Potter books. But she also relies far too much on our rapture at the Sorting Hat system, and not enough on giving us characters we can actually believe in. By the time Paige starts fomenting revolution, the only reason we believe she can do it is because of her voyant type (powerful dreamwalker) and because she's been sorted into the house of the second-in-command Rephaim whose training will be the very best. These aren't character traits — they are just boxes on a form.
Though there is undeniably something fun about escaping into Shannon's gothic worlds, they feel like beautiful, empty shells without meaty character arcs and the kind of political urgency you'd expect from a story about overthrowing a supernatural fascist regime. The world that Shannon has built is compelling and novel, so it's a shame that she's unable to populate it with anything other than stock stories and flat characters.