From Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials to Connie Willis’s Alex Award-winning To Say Nothing of the Dog, Oxford has long inspired writers’ imagination. There’s something about the university’s winding streets and hallowed halls that makes it seem as though magic could happen here.
So it’s no wonder that Samantha Shannon, herself an Oxford alumna, created a fantasy world set at her alma mater. In her debut, The Bone Season, the year is 2059, and Oxford has been established as Sheol I, a prison/training ground for clairvoyants (a.k.a. “voyants”) who are taken there from London (a.k.a. “Scion”), where having extrasensory powers is punishable by death. The narrator is 19-year-old Paige Mahoney, a Dreamwalker and the mollisher to Jaxon Hall, the powerful mime-lord of sector I-4. Shortly after the story begins, Paige is kidnapped and dragged to Sheol I, which she discovers is ruled over by a race of Rephaim, seemingly immortal human-looking creatures who feed on the auras of voyants, and who also train voyants to fight against the Emim, yet another category of otherworldly beings.
The question of good and evil in this world is a complex one. It’s clear from page one that Scion’s government is, in the fashion of all recent dystopian YA novels, deeply cruel, hunting voyants (or “unnaturals,” as Scion calls them) and often torturing and euthanizing them. When Paige is taken away from Scion, it’s hard to imagine that she could be going anywhere more dangerous—but indeed she is, and now all she wants is to escape the evil Rephaim and go home. Then we learn that the Rephaim are there to fight against the even more evil Emim, and the reader starts to suffer a kind of evilness fatigue. It’s hard to know whom to root for—other than Paige, of course. But what exactly should we root for her to do? In this world where everyone is out to kill her or use her, what should her goal be? What would safety and resolution look like? In that regard, this series is reminiscent of The Hunger Games’ multi-book arc: it is a small relief if book number one concludes with our heroine alive and safe, but there can be no true resolution until the very structure of her society has been remodeled. And that’s going to take a lot longer than one book.
As you have likely gathered by now, this is a confusing novel. The nine-page glossary in the back of the book is helpful, but only up to a point. I found myself comparing this to Rachel Hartman’s wonderful fantasy Seraphina, which also offered an extensive glossary—but at least the reader was eventually able to establish independence from it, to internalize these new words enough that he or she wouldn’t have to constantly flip to the end. The Bone Season has too many of these words, or they’re not introduced with sufficient context; either way, I never stopped feeling like I was reading in a foreign language.
The Bone Season seems likely to garner a polarized response from readers. Some will find it needlessly convoluted and violent—after a point I stopped counting how many times Paige had been knocked unconscious. However, there are just as many readers who will read that same complexity as richly inventive, and that same violence as exciting and high-stakes. It’s just hard to imagine someone feeling so-so about this book; it has, as the Brits might say, a kind of Marmite quality: you love it or you hate it.
Shannon’s publisher, Bloomsbury, has billed this as the first in a seven-book series, which is a massive vote of confidence; even Harry Potter was not signed up all at once in the U.S. It’s clear why the publisher thinks that this could be “the next big thing,” as it includes many of the features that readers are looking for in YA these days: a strong female protagonist who is “special” or “chosen” over all others; a dystopian future; a corrupt government; physical trials and training that the main character must undergo; supernatural beings (who are not vampires—we’re so over vampires); copious violence resulting in some well-placed deaths; and a storyline that sweeps across multiple novels. The one surprise is that there’s very little romance in here, but it’s not giving away too much to promise one hot make-out scene, and the sense that books number two to seven could bring more in that vein.
It would be ridiculous to claim that all teen novels follow the above formula. Most of them don’t. But those that do often monopolize publisher’s resources and media coverage, because we know that they have the possibility to explode. Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments, etc., all include many of those elements.
To a large extent, those books succeed because they give YA readers, most of them young women, a connection to greatness. They set up a society that feels like high school on speed—oppressive and cliquish, only way more so. And into this world comes a character who is trapped, just like the reader is, only she has more magical powers, is able to thwart evil, and gets way sexier French kisses than any of us do. The other part of the equation is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: a reader tells her librarian that she loved City of Bones and wants something similar to it; the librarian gives her The Bone Season.
The Bone Season is clearly inspired by its predecessors, but it’s not a rip-off of any one: it’s far less romance-focused than Twilight, more mature that Harry Potter, and messier and more sprawling than The Hunger Games. Although elements of The Bone Season are familiar, that does not make its storyline any easier to predict. That unpredictability is what makes this stand out from the pack of paranormal and dystopian teen novels. The downside is that you may read in a perpetual state of glossary-checking and Goodreads-searching. The upside is that the next plot point is never a foregone conclusion; the only way to find out what happens is just to keep reading.