Last week, Samantha Shannon’s first novel, “The Bone Season,” was released with no want of hype. The 21-year-old Oxford University alumna’s book has been touted as the next “Hunger Games,” and NBC’s “Today Show” made it the first read for its new book club. Shannon’s publisher offered her a deal rarely heard of, except for novelists like J.K. Rowling (and comparisons have been drawn there, too): seven books, six figures and a movie.
Does “The Bone Season” live up to the high expectations set for this young writer?
Shannon has created a world familiar in fantasy lit: a dystopian future. Her headstrong narrator is named Paige Mahoney. It’s 2059, and Paige lives in Scion London, an authoritarian police state that seeks to root out clairvoyants — sub-citizens who connect with a spirit realm called the “aether.” As it happens, Paige is a rare and powerful kind of clairvoyant: a dreamwalker, able to enter others’ minds and roam their dreamscapes. As a child, she recounts that she was “sensitive” to people. “Sometimes I’d felt tremors when they passed me, like my fingers had brushed a live wire. But things had changed. . . . Now I couldn’t just sense people — I could hurt them.”
In the opening chapter, her path takes an unexpected turn. Kidnapped and drugged, she wakes to find herself in Oxford, a city that has been hidden for 200 years. Inside its walls lies Sheol I, a penal colony for clairvoyants governed by the Rephaim, an otherworldly and supposedly immortal race. If Paige’s life in Scion seemed dangerous, this life is worse.
Unfortunately, the plot can be confusing (a glossary in the back is an occasional help), and the violence gets repetitive — Paige is knocked out no fewer than 20 times. What disrupts the book most often, though, is the author. In some of the most heightened moments, scenes break for unnecessary and redundant narration. And a contrived back story set in Ireland gives the impression that more hands than just Shannon’s have molded it.
These flaws would be less of an issue had Bloomsbury released the novel with more manageable expectations — “The Bone Season” has got a lot going for it, particularly its clipped pace and exciting story line. The future Shannon presents is frightening and well-imagined, and her complex hierarchy is fascinating. Once the story gets anchored to a clear cause — Paige’s escape from Sheol I — her character soars and the confusing background proves endearingly brainy rather than convoluted.
The large talent on display here suggests just how good Shannon could get in the next six books of this promising series.
Gutting is a writer in Washington.
THE BONE SEASON
By Samantha Shannon
466 pp. $24