City of Dreaming Spires ‘The Bone Season’ by Samantha Shannon

bonseason‘Knowledge is dangerous…Once you know something, you can’t get rid of it. You have to carry it. Always.’

Whilst I was reading The Bone Season, the hype surrounding it hit the national press. At twenty-one Samantha Shannon is of an age that captures media interest. The book is published by Bloomsbury and contains magic, and so the inevitable question is asked, Will Shannon by the next JK Rowling? Bloomsbury have paid her a six-figure advance, so clearly they are hoping so. Considering the unique standing Rowling has in the literary world, it is an unfair comparison, and no doubt an unwanted burden.

But is there any justification for making it? Aside from superficial similarities, Bloomsbury, female, magic, I would say no. The Bone Season is an accomplished and compelling debut, but it is far cry from the early Dahlesque, wizards in pointy hats, Potter novels. This is no children’s book. It is much darker. Its blend of magic and dystopia, not to mention an alternate Oxford, make the Bone Season far more Pullman than Rowling. *

Though intrigued by the premise, I found the book awkward at first. Set in the near future (2059) but in an alternate universe (where magic became possible in 1859), the central protagonist, Paige is a powerful wielder of the aether. As a teenager, she is not yet fully aware of her abilities only that she is a dreamwalker, one of the rarest types of Clairvoyants.

The world is split into two types ‘amaurotics’ (people like you and me) who are in the majority and mistrustful of those who can interact with the aether. Of those who can, there are many different types (all beautifully laid out in a diagram at the front) which have weird and wonderful names such as cartomancer (who use cards to access the aether) and chiromancers (palms). The problem is with so many gradings and subtypes of ‘voyant’ it becomes confusing as to who can do what, and what significance (if any) that might have.

The government is backed by the organisation, Scion, designed to keep the minority voyants in check. In what is a standard dystopian device, they do this through use of a draconian police force. Counter to Scion, are the syndicates; gangs headed by crime-lords that run different areas of the city. Paige’s boss Jaxon Hall, is a mime-lord, an expert in voyants; a Fagin for the aethereal generation. Jaxon and his gang operate out of Seven Dials, in London, a wonderfully evocative place, even on your average weekday.  Shannon has constructed her world outwards from there. The dirty streets, oppressed masses and occasional bank of fog give the whole novel a Dickensian feel.

The action quickly moves to Oxford. A closed city and unbeknownst to the rest of the country a penal colony for voyants. Here the true masters of Scion are revealed. The Rephaim. An almost angel-like race (in aspect, rather than attitude), who can use aether for more effectively than humans. They use the voyants for their own nefarious purpose. Their grip on the nation is total, and they hold us in the utmost contempt. Headstrong Paige must learn to survive, but when her life is put in hands of the blood-consort, what chance does she have?

The novel’s success lies in its depth of the world-building. It is a little confusing at first, but Shannon has developed an intriguing and innovative setting. The magic used by the voyants and Rephraim is multi-layered.  The physical aspect that is required for many of the aether’s wielders is particularly interesting and gives the voyant’s magic depth and texture.  The real-world references are well placed. There are small historical extrapolations that make the alternate United Kingdom feel credible.  The novel’s politics and power is detailed and plausible with factions of Rephaim, voyants and amaurotics, all vying for supremacy and survival. There are factions within factions, and as the novel builds up a head of steam, the plays and counterplays are breathtaking.

The best dystopian fiction offers insight into the human condition, and The Bone Season does exactly this.  The ease of indoctrinating humans to become their own gaolers, and the selfishness of the individual are cleverly exposed. There is something Orwellian about the ordeal of the voyants.  The nature of trust is central to the novel. Paige has learned to rely only on herself, but in order to survive she must trust people who are close too her. But at what cost?

The Bone Season is a complex novel, with many layers, and a vast number of ideas. Almost too many at times. It offers much food for thought, whilst delivering excitement and intrigue. It is a fine rendition of a dystopian world, which will appeal to many fans of the genre.  By the end of the novel the central story is closed, but with many of its players still at large, the book is well positioned for a follow on. If the hype is anything to go by, the Bone Season is likely make a decent splash in the literary pond. It deserves to. It’s an original idea, well executed by a prodigious talent. I look forward to reading whatever comes next.

Many Thanks to at Bloomsbury for sending me an advance copy of this novel to review. 

*I was convinced that The Bone Season had been influenced by His Dark Materials, after all Shannon is lucky enough to be of an age to have grown up with Pullman’s novels.  I chanced upon a Tweet from Samantha saying that she had just finished The Northern Lights.  When I asked her about it, she confirmed that this was her first reading of the book, and that she hadn’t heard of Lyra’s Oxford before writing her own version of the spired city.  

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3 thoughts on “City of Dreaming Spires ‘The Bone Season’ by Samantha Shannon

  1. I’m excited for the book to come out in the US so I can read it, even more so after reading your review. But I also have remained skeptical that The Bone Season would be “the next Harry Potter”.

    1. Thanks Alison. Comparisons with HP are lazy. The books are nothing alike and have totally different audience in mind. In publishing terms I think Susanna Clarke’s Norrell and Strange is a better comparison. I didn’t say this in the review because the books are nothing alike, but I imagine they will draw on a similar pool of readers.

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