Monday, September 23, 2013

Erotic Alien Hairdressing: My Rather Long Review of The Bone Season

The moment that Samantha Shannon’s debut novel—the first in a planned series of seven—came onto my radar, I knew I wanted to read it. The press-hyped comparisons to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series caught my eye, but the description of the book itself reeled me in. It was characterized as a dystopian, “New Adult” novel, with fantasy and speculative fiction elements, set in the future (though involving a bit of alternate history) in London and Oxford. Um, hello. Sign me up! The fact that the book was penned by a recent Oxford graduate only added to the appeal. I am typically inclined to support talented young, female writers. Those writing in my preferred genres get bonus points!

{Or, as my boyfriend would call it, "The Boner Season."}

A Few General Comments:
I read the book over both legs of my recent trip to Michigan. My primary reaction? This is a series—and a new author—with real potential. I was impressed by the quality of the world building and the overall vibe of the book’s smooth blend of dystopia and fantasy. Some readers have whined of plot holes and unanswered questions (be warned that the book does end on a cliffhanger), but I have patience and faith. The first installment of any series tends to be a starting point from which the world, the characters, the story, and even the writer’s talent take root and grow. As a new author, Shannon’s craft will no doubt mature with her series as it progresses through the remaining six volumes.
I’ve also checked out a few interviews with Shannon, who seems humble, passionate about her writing, and generally a cool chick. In this Q&A, she talks about her HP-love and anxiety over the press’s insistence on comparing her to Rowling. Then she highlights the Benedict Cumberbatch calendar hanging in her room. Samantha, let’s be besties! I will definitely be awaiting the next installment in this series, and cheering for Shannon’s continued success.
And now: a few notable strengths and weaknesses, plus some juicy bits that I want to discuss about The Bone Season. Potential light spoilers, though I've censored anything that might give too much away. Skip the “juicy bits” section at the end if you haven’t read the book.

·      Beautiful world building! We get the dystopian Scion London (a little 1984, a little V for Vendetta); the clairvoyant-run crime Syndicate; the Sheol I penal colony, based in the abandoned grounds of Oxford; the Rephaim, a powerful race of humanoid creatures who run Sheol I; the Emim—aka “Buzzers”—a species of flesh-eating creatures that threaten humans and Rephs alike; and, of course, the whole gamut of clairvoyance, complete with diverse abilities, practices, and even a sort of social caste. There’s also a nice bit of alternate history thrown in to accommodate for the rise of clairvoyance and how this event shaped the sociopolitical landscape of Shannon’s world. My favorite aspect was the whole concept of the aether, the sort of mystical spirit-force that voyants tap to use their powers. Although Shannon does not dwell on religion in the text, there are some definite spiritual-verging-on-religious connotations to the relationship between humanity, the Rephs, voyance, and the aether. It will be interesting to see how this plays into the overall mythology of the series as it progresses.
·      The primary players—both protagonists and antagonists—are interesting and likable. Paige is suitably feisty as a heroine. I’m occasionally on the fence about the parade of Katniss Everdeen clones being marched out in the name of feminism or whatever—yes, we certainly need strong female characters; but the idea that only ass-kicking, surly, tomboyish, warrior women can be considered “strong” is ludicrous and demeaning—but Paige also has a softness to her that Shannon occasionally reveals. I hope that her character will continue to develop outside of the “courage” and “romance” arenas of her personality. Warden, too, shows signs of complexity beyond many of his genre counterparts. He exhibits touches of the ubiquitous Byronic hero, but Shannon tempers these with enough redeeming qualities to prevent him from being an asshole (for the love of God, YA writers of all genres, take note of this). The primary antagonist, Nashira Sargas, is an ice queen; but I’m interested to learn more about her motivations, her backstory, and particularly the history behind her relationship with Warden.
·      This is not paranormal romance and there are no love triangles. It’s always refreshing to find a genre novel that devotes time to developing characters’ relationships (romantic or not) without turning into a romance novel with some plot thrown in haphazardly. A habitual offender, as much as it pains me to say it because I still love her to death, is my girl Cassandra Clare. Both her Mortal Instruments and especially her Infernal Devices series begin with inventive world building and engaging premises, which are sabotaged by her inability to resist devolving into increasingly melodramatic romantic plotlines, usually driven by irritating love triangles. What results is a work that can be read as a potentially interesting story that is continually stalled and/or underdeveloped at the expense of long and repetitive love scenes; or a romance novel that is bogged down by extraneous plotting. Shannon avoids this by preventing the romantic aspects from overshadowing the more important plotlines. The only “romance” at play here is slow moving and plot related; and it is definitely not the primary focus. There’s no forced love triangle to annoy or divide her readers. For those who enjoy a little kink, there are some transgressive elements to the romance (power differential, interspecies…). Just don’t expect some Fifty Shades nonsense!
·      She makes references to my favorite books, so I will love her even if her future books are turds. Frankenstein? Check. The Turn of the Screw? Check. I’m going to go ahead and assume that a randomly mentioned spirit muse dubbed JD is the ghost of John Donne. No one try to convince me otherwise!

{Seriously, Samantha Shannon, let's chill and geek out about books together sometime!}

·      Some structural editing would be helpful. Especially in the first quarter of the book, there is a jarring lack of balance between exposition and action. Two large information dumps that occur early in the text are helpful in giving the reader the necessary background information (I know some have complained about finding these sections confusing or “too much” in terms of new info, but I didn’t find this to be a particular issue), but stall the plot to a noticeably irritating degree. There’s also a temporal detachment that makes it difficult to gauge how much time has passed between certain events. I was surprised, late in the book, to learn the time span from beginning to end; I initially assumed that things transpired over a much shorter period of time. Just a few more quick time references throughout would have better clarified the speed at which certain characters and events were developing throughout the story.
·      Some of the supporting characters are underdeveloped. On the one hand, we have some truly fun and vivid secondary players—namely Jaxon Hall, a charismatic crime boss who reads like the love child of Fagan and Long John Silver, with the style and panache of Gilderoy Lockhart. I want more of him, please! On the other hand, we get characters like Sebastian and Liss, friendly but downtrodden types who are meant to inspire pathos in both the reader and, especially, in Paige. The trouble is that these characters are not fully drawn enough to resonate. Seb, who seems intended to inspire a substantial portion of Paige’s emotions and actions, gets so little development that he seems like an afterthought. I couldn’t buy her emotional investment in a character with so little “screen time.” While Paige’s connection to Liss is totally believable, Liss herself is not particularly interesting at this stage in the text. There were a slew of other secondary characters who came and went with little lasting impression, but I was not as bothered by these; both because many these characters seemed more plot-necessitated, and because I expect that the ones that matter will be developed in future books.
·      Do we need to hear things from Paige’s point of view, or would third person narration be more effective? First person narration is so popular because it generates a certain ease in both writing and reading. However, it also sets limitations on the prose. This was my first foray into the “New Adult” genre; and I was anticipating a coupling of YA’s high-interest narrative and a more literary, adult style of writing. Be warned: while The Bone Season follows older characters (Paige is in her twenties), it reads exactly like a YA novel. I think this has less to do with the caliber of Shannon’s writing than with the decision to have her protagonist—who is neither particularly bookish nor overly eloquent—narrate the series. Apart from the world-specific jargon, there isn’t much in the way of artful diction or syntax. It isn’t as distracting as Katniss’s pervasive sentence fragments in The Hunger Games, but it was noticeable enough that I repeatedly wished Shannon had made the short leap over to third person limited. As a SPOILERY side note, highlight to read: Perhaps it also would have eliminated one of the few minor details that really irked me—when Paige’s first encounter with Warden leads her to immediately note what a hottie he is. We could have been alerted to the fact without being ushered into the obvious, “Welp. I guess no matter what happens from here on out, they’re probs gonna hook up at some point!” I fervently thought that that one, tiny moment undermined much of the beauty of how slowly and ambiguously their relationship progressed.

The Juicy Bits- Random Other Musings
**Highlight to read, but beware! Spoilers abound! Don’t read this section if you haven’t read the book!**

·      Erotic Alien Hairdressing—or, that moment when the fact that your lover is putting your hair into an updo is more bizarre than the fact that your lover is a different species. I’m not going to lie, here. The moment when Warden started intricately dressing Paige’s hair had me literally laughing out loud. I totally get the intimacy of the moment. I even thought it was pretty hot. But the image of this giant, sexy, non-human warrior playing hairdresser with his big ol’ man hands was more than a little funny.
·      What’s going on under Warden’s skirt? Can he and Paige actually get it on? Samantha Shannon indicated on Twitter that yes, Rephs do in fact have the ability to reproduce with one another. However, we never see any Reph children described in The Bone Season. I wonder why? The more important question is obviously whether or not Rephs and humans can do the dirty, as many readers are clearly anticipating some cross-pollination! I think it’s safe to assume that they are anatomically similar to humans, as I doubt Bloomsbury would be very happy if Shannon gave them tentacle dicks or something of the sort. Given the fact that Rephs are repeatedly described as being exceptionally tall, I’m also going to go ahead and assume that they are pretty hung. Could this present some anatomical challenges? Also, what does it say about me that these are the main questions I have lingering after book one? No—please—don’t respond to that! As long as Shannon doesn’t devolve into Breaking Dawn type ridiculousness, I think all will be good.
·      I DO have a theory about who and what the Rephaim are. I previously mentioned my interest in the aether. It’s probably too early in the game to make solid predictions, but I’m going to guess that the Rephaim will turn out to be some sort of pre-Adamite form of humans. Perhaps they will be similar to Nephilim, given their stature and attractiveness, but within the "theology" of her world, where the aether acts as a sort of nirvana-as-God force and they're, like, this connected but unique offshoot of that. Just my two cents, though.
·      Where are the damn Buzzers? For such an important threatening force, the Emim sure don’t seem to make many appearances. I’m really hoping for more Buzzer action in book two…plus a more detailed description of what they look like and where they come from. Their initial description reminded me a bit of these creatures called the Crekka in my own series-in-progress—reptilian humanoids who eat human flesh and are also named for the sound they make—so I’ve been picturing them somewhat like that. Or are they more like zombies? Or maybe wendigos? Give us the deets, Samantha Shannon!

Alright. Enough for now. I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Bone Season! Feel free to drop a line if you want to talk books or argue about whether the spirit “JD” was supposed to be the ghost of John Donne (it totally was—right?).

{Do my insect metaphors arouse you?}

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