In publishing, the cultivation of hype is a delicate thing.
One wants, of course, to raise awareness in the minds of potential readers, to give them a sense of familiarity with a book or author in order to build a sense of anticipation. It’s easy to go too far, though. If I start to describe a book or an author and your response is, say, “Oh yeah, I think I read about that in Forbes or something. They think she’s going to be the next J.K. Rowling, right?” the hype has gone too far. There are few authors, few books, that can stand up to that level of pre-judgment.
And yet, here we are once again.
Yes, Samantha Shannon was profiled in Forbes magazine as part of a trend piece a few weeks ago, under the headline “Is 21-Year-Old Samantha Shannon the Next J.K. Rowling?” The article describes how the young British writer, previously unpublished, sold The Bone Season and the next two books in what is planned as a seven-book series for an undisclosed six-figure sum, with rights being sold in 20 countries and film rights being snapped up by Andy Serkis’s The Imaginarium.
It’s a sexy story, publishing-wise, but Shannon herself seems aware of the potential perils. She is quoted as saying, “It’s a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of expectations.” It also overlooks one thing: What of the book? In focusing on the business and personal backstories – no matter how glamorous – the book itself seems to disappear, or be almost peripheral. Contrast this to the hype that preceded the publication of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, which was fuelled not only by a lengthy Vanity Fair piece but by the decision to print 5,000 advance copies of the novel and distribute them, in the main, to booksellers, who read and adored the book and vigorously hand-sold it onto the bestseller charts.
So what of The Bone Season?
It’s actually pretty good.
In the mid-21st century of this alternative-history world, England is under the control of a government/security force called Scion, and lives in a perpetual state of martial law (though it is not referred to as such). Society is divided into two groups, naturals and unnaturals. The unnaturals – voyants – have some degree of psychic power, which is illegal under Scion law. “All clairvoyance was prohibited, of course, but the kind that made money was a downright sin. They had a special word for it: mime-crime. … Scion called it treason. The official method of execution for such crimes was nitrogen asphyxiation, marketed under the brand name NiteKind.”
Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is a voyant, a secret she has kept from everyone close to her (“I committed high treason just by breathing.”) While she tells her father that she works as an assistant at an oxygen bar, she is actually a member of an underground mime-crime syndicate, a kind of “surveillance tool … to keep track of ethereal activity in [her mime-lord’s] section.” It’s risky work, but it allows Paige a community she has never before experienced.
Her clandestine-but-steady life comes to an end when she is picked up by security forces and removed to Sheol I, a prison camp at Oxford (rumoured to have been destroyed decades earlier) and ruled over by the Rephaim, an otherworldly species who, it turns out, have been the power behind Scion for two centuries, and who are nurturing an army of voyants for their own purposes.
For training, Paige is taken in by the Blood Consort, Warden. Theirs, of course, is no simple relationship: He treats her better than most of the other masters treat their voyants, and, it turns out, he has his own plans for the unnatural.
Despite the complexities of the world-building (which includes a substantial idiom to become familiar with), The Bone Season reads easily and smoothly. The reader is taken into the worlds of Scion and Sheol I through Shannon’s descriptions and her comfort with the world she has created: She doesn’t overload the reader with extraneous details and trusts in them enough to know that they’ll be able to follow well enough to allow inferences and references to build and clarify over time (the maps, tables and glossaries also help, but they’re largely extraneous, because of Shannon’s skill).
The story unfolds with a similar ease, as the relationship between Paige and Warden shifts and deepens, as secrets are revealed and Paige’s desire for her freedom builds into a concrete plan. The characters are as developed as they need to be: Paige is fully rounded (and occasionally irritating), while Warden is a cipher slowly revealed. The relationship between the two develops naturally, though uncomfortably. This isn’t a young-adult novel, and there’s a sense of inevitability to their eventual intimacy, but those scenes are unintentionally uncomfortable: It’s difficult to get past the history between the two of them, the power imbalance, and the fact that they are two different species.
As a whole, the novel works. It sags occasionally, and is probably about 50 pages too long, but the emotional crux points work admirably, and The Bone Season will leave most readers wanting more, which is what you want from the first book of a seven-volume series.
It’s pointless to ask whether The Bone Season “deserves” the hype it has received – mixing aesthetic judgment with business tactics is a fool’s game, and impossible to do with a clear conscience. I will say this, though: The hype does The Bone Season, and Samantha Shannon, something of a disservice. By raising expectations to that level, even a good book – which this is – will seem anticlimactic. The lucky readers are the ones who can either ignore the hype, or wait it out, and give The Bone Season the reading it deserves.
Robert J. Wiersema’s next novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.