Into the caldron that is her debut urban fantasy novel, “The Bone Season,” Samantha Shannon has wisely sprinkled every element for potential success.
There’s a feisty 19-year-old protagonist named Paige. She’s a criminal. She’s motherless. And she’s street-smart. Shannon sets Paige loose in a clever playground: an alternate dystopia, in the year 2059, ruled not by magic, but psychic phenomena. Paige belongs to a syndicate of outlaw “voyants,” clairvoyants who are forbidden to practice their arts by Scion, the police state. Paige also talks noir-tough. Sample quips: “The truth was dangerous,” “A den like ours was no place for ethics,” and “I wanted to kill him. As it happened, I couldn’t.”
Like J. K. Rowling’s wizarding schools, a complex system governs voyants, who fall into one of “Seven Orders of Clairvoyance,” and dozens of subspecies, all detailed in an exhaustive chart. Trotting out another trope of the genre, Shannon bestows on Paige a special gift. She’s no lowly soothsayer, but a rare “dreamwalker,” able to invade the “dreamscape.” But she has yet to master her skills.
THE BONE SEASON
“I could see my silver cord, unraveling from my dreamscape, giving me a way to return,” Paige says, describing an early dreamwalking experiment. “The Bone Season” devotes pages to similar discussion of spirits, the netherworld, and the aether.” (Spelled not “ae” but with the alphabetic symbol.) The reader’s tolerance of such paranormal jibber-jabber — and play-by-play of video game-like psychic combat — will largely determine his or her enjoyment of the story.
Soon, Paige’s psychic talents lead to her capture. We learn that it’s not Scion, but an ancient race called Rephaim running the show. Every decade, they gather elite voyants like Paige in harvests called “bone seasons.” “Hunger Games,” anyone? Like psychic vampires, Rephaim feed on the aura of humans. Super-telepaths like Paige are recruited to help the “Reph” fight their arch-enemies, the Emim, a.k.a. “Buzzers.” Like the fictional slang Nadsat in Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange,” Shannon creates a rich argot for her characters to speak — from “amaurotic” (nonclairvoyant) to “yellow-jacket” (coward).
Lost? So is Paige. At least there’s a helpful glossary. After a cinema-ready chase across London’s rooftops, she is shipped off to Oxford, a penal colony called Sheol I. (If you know Oxford, you’ll appreciate how Shannon overlays her world on the real city.) Here, Paige is enslaved to an ultimately sympathetic Rephaim named Warden. This core relationship, fired by trust and suspicion, attraction and repulsion, should generate enough heat to power the book’s tension. Unfortunately, their interaction consists largely of exposition. “I suspected your gift was activated by strong emotions: anger, loathing, sadness — and fear,” explains Warden in a typically wooden moment. The Rephaim often speak like movie villains. “Impressive,” says their leader, Nashira, addressing Paige. “I like you, XX-40. You have spirit.” (How exactly do you say “XX”?) Most characters don’t so much converse as tell each other what they know. Paige’s narration, initially full of witty touches, peters out to merely advance the plot, which centers on Paige jumpstarting a rebellion. “There must be a reason,” she muses in one scene; in another: “I still had so many questions.”
Oddly, one of the novel’s most affecting scenes is told in flashback. Reeling from an early heartbreak, Paige heads to a bar. She picks up a guy and loses her virginity in the parking lot. “Wasn’t it meant to be special, the first time? But I couldn’t stop.” In this real, non-ethereal moment, we get bites of earthbound emotion.
“The Bone Season” is a manufactured hit. And like a painstakingly concocted serum, Shannon has combined a cup of “Harry Potter,” a pound of “The Hunger Games,” and a smidgen of “Twilight,” pouring her words into a vessel that once held the Burgess “Clockwork” classic. The result is mixed — at times tasty, often bland, and never fully settling on its own unique formula.
To this blockbuster stew, add the irresistible media story that is the authoress herself. Shannon, a 21-year-old Oxford grad, was “discovered” by her creative writing instructor, Booker Prize nominee Ali Smith. Soon came the ginormous book deal, the film rights, and plans to release the book in 16 languages.
Meanwhile, buzz has begun that could drown out her own creation, including those nasty “Buzzers.” That noise better last. Six more books are coming.
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at