Samantha Shannon is being touted as the new J. K. Rowling. She's 21, a fresh graduate of Oxford, where she was a student when she wrote The Bone Season, the first in a projected seven-novel urban fantasy series. She's got a film deal with the new London studio set up by Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings fame, and she's been courting booksellers, book reviewers, and fantasy fans for more than a year.
It's tricky when a book arrives with such preliminary brouhaha. I've learned to scrub my mind of hype and leave it to the text. The proof is in the reading.
So how is The Bone Season?
It's terrific--intelligent, inventive, dark, and engrossing enough to keep me up late to finish.
Paige Mahoney, the novel's street-smart clairvoyant narrator, is more akin to the post-apocalyptic girl gladiator in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games than to Harry Potter. There's a distinct Margaret Atwood-style wash to Shannon's dystopian universe, and echoes of Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange in the colorful lingo.
Shannon sets Paige down in the ultra-modern city of Scion London, an alternative to the city we know, in 2059. "Voyants" like Paige are outlawed: imprisoned, executed, or bound to serve for thirty years on a police force, tracking their own before being euthanized.
At 19, Paige has polished her survival skills working as a "mollisher," the protegee of Jaxon, the leader of the Seven Seals criminal gang. "Better an outlaw than a stiff," as he puts it. Her street name is Pale Dreamer. "I was a hacker of sorts," she says of herself. "Not a mind reader, exactly; more a mind radar ..."
When two members of Scion's security force come after her, Paige's talent defends her so powerfully that she inadvertently kills one and drives the other mad. She ends up in Sheol I — a penal colony for voyants set up in the secret city of Oxford, far from London's skyscrapers. "Stone walls, wooden doors. Leaded windows glazed with deep red and amethyst," Shannon writes. Sheol I, Paige discovers, is the home base for a supernatural ruling race of Rephaim, who set up Scion's puppet government 200 years before.
The Rephaim gather the most promising human voyants in once-a-decade harvests they call "bone seasons." These prisoners become slaves. Their Rephaim — Paige calls them the Reph — masters beat them, and feed on their auras and blood.
Paige is claimed by a Reph she calls Warden. He is tall, with heavy lidded yellow eyes and dark honey gold skin. "He was the single most beautiful and terrible thing I'd ever laid eyes on." He is to coach her through a series of deadly battles to become a red-jacket, part of a battalion risking death and mutilation to defend Oxford against the monstrous Emim — "mindless, bestial creatures with a taste for human flesh" — who live outside its walls. Once she moves into Warden's quarters at Magdalen, she discovers he has a clandestine life, and a mysterious kind streak.
Shannon has remarkable talent for world-building. Her imagined parallels to London and Oxford are cunningly layered over the original cities (there are maps) and filled with vivid detail, although the extensive voyant classification system hierarchy grows tedious.
But her most sublime otherworldly creation is the complex, ever evolving, scrappy yet touching Paige Mahoney. Shannon illuminates Paige's growing awareness of the new world she inhabits, and the moral choices she faces, with great empathy. She emphasizes Paige's endearing unwillingness to submit, which draws her into danger time and again. Paige struggles with her gift, which is unstable, not within her conscious control; it seems most powerful when she is defending herself to the death. She dreams of escape. She fights bravely to survive. She protects the weak and rallies furiously against overwhelming force. Paige is a credible hero. I want her to win. And with that, Shannon has me hooked.