Monday, 20 January 2014

Review: 'The Bone Season' by Samantha Shannon

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The year is 2059. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working in the criminal underworld of Scion London, based at Seven Dials, employed by a man named Jaxon Hall. Her job: to scout for information by breaking into people’s minds. For Paige is a dreamwalker, a clairvoyant and, in the world of Scion, she commits treason simply by breathing.

It is raining the day her life changes for ever. Attacked, drugged and kidnapped, Paige is transported to Oxford – a city kept secret for two hundred years, controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. Paige is assigned to Warden, a Rephaite with mysterious motives. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy. But if Paige wants to regain her freedom she must allow herself to be nurtured in this prison where she is meant to die.


 
Review

Sometimes I wonder how much of a bubble we book bloggers live in. When I was flicking through the reviews of this book on Goodreads, I was surprised to see that it wasn’t a sweep of four and five star reviews. Maybe I follow a group of bloggers with similar tastes to mine but I haven’t seen anything but glowing reviews, urging me to read The Bone Season as soon as I could. At an average of 3.66 out of 11,913 ratings (as at the time of writing), however, Goodreads tells a different story. So what is it that makes book bloggers crow with love and the wider reading population feel a little more than luke warm?

Maybe part of it is down to marketing. I haven’t seen the articles myself but apparently Samantha Shannon has been hailed as the “next J. K. Rowling”. Leaving aside the fact that J. K. Rowling is very much alive and well and might be a bit miffed to read that she was now being replaced by a fresh face in YA fantasy, I can see why readers might be a little disgruntled if they picked up The Bone Season expecting something akin to the tale of a young boy finding his place in a magical wizarding school, engaging in a bit of tom-foolery and ultimately fighting evil alongside a host of well-mannered and trust-worthy companions. I can vaguely see some similarities to the later Harry Potter books but only really in a (SPOILER FOR HARRY POTTER COMING UP!) “what would have happened if Voldemort won” sort of way.

Whatever the reason for the mixed reception, I really enjoyed it. It took a little bit of getting into but once I’d got my head around the types of clairvoyant and the slang, I was hooked. A lot of thought and imagination is clearly behind the creation of the worlds of Scion London and Sheol I.  Plenty of politics, a history that really seemed to fit with the current state of the world and with the characters’ memories and a huge range of types of clairvoyants that have their own skill sets and place in society. It actually took me most of this book to really feel as though I understood the different types of “voyant”, which was part of the reason I think it took me some time before I really felt as though I could focus on the story.  The detail is clever and is layered perfectly, without any clumsy information dumping or the like, but I found myself feeling a little as though I was behind on something and couldn't quite work out what.  I'd read the name of a new type of voyant and think, "but I don't know what you can do!" in the way that only a true control freak really can.  I did learn to shut that part of my brain off and trust Shannon to gradually dole out the relevant background and terms but it took some getting used to.  I was a much happier reader without that little part of my brain.  I probably would have been entirely happy had I not been reading an eBook copy that didn't reveal it's glorious glossary to me until I'd already finished the book...

I definitely liked Paige Mahoney well enough and was more than happy to spend some page time with her but it was the criminal underworld of Scion London and the hidden prison camp (effectively) of Sheol I that really pulled me in. There are some elements of Sheol I that stray a little close to the monstrosities of WWII concentration camps for comfort (take tattooing people with their identification number by way of an example) but it did make the setup seem worryingly realistic (if you ignore the fact that the subordinate class have some form of clairvoyance and the dominant class are aliens, obviously!) and much more morbidly engaging as a result.  If you wanted to read too much into it, I'm sure there are plenty more parallels that you could draw about the drone like, brainwashed voyants that serve in the Rephaite army, murdering on order but there's an external threat in the form of the flesh-eating monsters to keep the action up and moral disquiet down as needed.

Credit also to Shannon for boldly going where not many YA authors appear to be prepared to go and killing characters off. There’s really nothing else for it if you’re going to write good dystopian fiction in my view and I respect it even when it’s making my heart hurt and my stomach clench.

For all of the positives about much of the book, though, I wasn’t totally convinced by some of the events towards the end of this book. I don’t want to spoil this book for anybody because I do absolutely recommend it as a marvellous mix of some of the best that YA fantasy and dystopian fiction have to offer but some things towards the end felt a little…easy. Not contrived, necessarily, but just as though they didn’t quite work with the society that I had immersed myself in, particularly when it comes to Paige’s interactions with Warden. There is some gradual development of their relationship and respective characters but most of the book seemed to be spent with Paige thinking and feeling one way, only to have quite the turn around later on. I don’t mind shifting friendships and I’m fine with a changing captor-prisoner dynamic in fantasy series but I like there to be enough in the way of development and reasons for me to really get behind the direction the characters are moving in.  In a way, I guess that it's praise that I just wanted more of everything that was brilliant about the book.

Overall: Minor grumbles aside, The Bone Season is really very good so please don’t say that I didn’t warn you when you pick it up and find that 90 minute chunks of your time are disappearing in a blur of voyants. I will definitely be snaffling a copy of the next book in the series and am looking forward to seeing where the series goes.

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Date finished: 13 January 2014
Format: eBook
Source: Received from the publisher via NetGalley - thank you, Bloomsbury!
Genre: Urban fantasy; dystopian fiction; YA fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Orbit in May 2011

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