This is a very grim story threaded with startlingly good flashes of originality. That is not to say that brave young women, invading aliens and mind manipulation have not been used in fantasy and science fiction before, but here these things are freshly and excitingly used to edgy effect.
Paige Mahoney lives and works in Scion London of 2059, a city ruled by a viciously repressive regime which kills clairvoyants or sends them to Sheol 1, a hidden penal colony. She is a criminal. Her clairvoyance makes her valuable to Jaxon, the mastermind of a team that uses her skills of roaming the aether to help make saleable art forgeries, among other crimes. Life is not easy. Clairvoyants, of whom there are many differing orders, need to remain hidden from the authorities at all times. Paige is a dreamwalker, one who can move into the minds of others and even attack them there. This makes her extremely valuable, and one day, when the Bone Season XX begins, she is harvested.
She is taken to Sheol 1, where the real horror of the situation is revealed to her; Scion is controlled by an alien race, the Rephaim. Powerful and strangely beautiful, these beings have controlled London for a very long time. There is also another brutal race which must be resisted: the Emim. Every ten years the clairvoyants are gathered and taken to Sheol 1 in order to repel these brutal killers. This time of collection and brutal indoctrination is called the Bone Season. Paige is assigned to a keeper, the Warden, to be trained:
His skin was a dark honey gold, setting off two heavy lidded yellow eyes. He was the tallest of the five males, with coarse brown hair, clothed in embroidered black. Wrapped around him was a strange, soft aura, overshadowed by the others in the room. He was the single most beautiful and terrible thing I’d ever laid eyes on.
Throughout the excitements of the complex and incident-filled plot, there are echoes of other forms of fantasy. Paige is an enchanting heroine; she is full of compassion and kindness and reminds one of those fairy stories where goodness (usually on the part of the youngest brother, for example) allows the protagonist to find ways to survive. Furthermore, the relationship between the Warden and Paige makes a gesture towards the myth of Psyche and Eros:
Jaxon had always said there was more to being a dreamwalker than a heightened sixth sense. I had the potential to walk anywhere, even in other dreamscapes. I’d proved it by killing those two Underguards. Warden might be able to show me even more – but I didn’t want him as a teacher. He and I were natural enemies; there was no use pretending otherwise. And yet he had observed so much about me: the way I held myself, my tension, my vigilance. Jax was always telling me to loosen up, to let myself float. But that didn’t mean I could trust the man who kept me locked in this cold dark room.
It is in the realm of relationships that Paige excels. She can be aggressively assertive (the word feisty is not good enough for her) and is intelligent and brave, and she brings all this to her dealings with others. But it is her compassion that is most marked; she tries to aid other victims with varying success. She is the teller of her story and fortunately, the author has given us ways to understand her history, character and skills by having her remember certain situations, both during her youth in Ireland and in her criminal life in Scion.
It is indeed fortunate that Shannon gives us a certain amount of exposition for this is not an easy read; there is so much fascinating detail to assimilate about the orders of clairvoyance and the complex mores and politics of the Rephaim that a degree of explanation is necessary. These explanations are well integrated and do not jar. As well, the action is compelling, violent, cruel, and scary. I was forced to put the book down occasionally, out of fear of what was about to happen. It is a forceful and vibrant narrative, really a thriller.
Shannon has stepped right out of any genre rigidity and uses her very highly developed writing skills to powerful effect. It is hard to believe that it is a first novel, so cleverly does she avail herself of many fantasy and science-fiction tropes and nuances. The final scenes are very exciting and dramatic, and, hingeing as they do on the nature of loyalty and trust, have an emotionally satisfying truth.
There is a glossary, an explanation of the orders of clairvoyance, and a map; all welcome additions.
And there will undoubtedly be sequels.
(One little thing I loved. Perhaps it is not a spoiler to reveal it. The penal colony is set in Oxford University. Samantha Shannon has just finished studying English Literature there.)
Samantha Shannon The Bone Season Bloomsbury 2013 PB 480pp $24.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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