Friday, October 18, 2013

The Bone Season


               Okay, so the rundown is as follows: This is not a good book. It is well-written, but it is a bad book. The characters aren't really that compelling, the world isn't strong, the only thing that seems to work for it is the worldbuilding, which is both plot and character-agnostic. Stay away from this one, though watch Samantha Shannon, because she could very easily become an author of some renown if she fixes her issues with pacing, characterization, and all the rest. 

                   Don't believe the hype, don't buy into the curiosity, just leave this one where you found it, and maybe look for Shannon's next book. She's got seven books planned and this is the first one, so hopefully she'll get better. More, as always, below

"...they call it Mime-crime"
- Paige
                        Worldbuilding in science fiction is a difficult thing. If you do it right, you create a rich backstory. If you do it wrong, you wind up with a world more interesting than the characters inhabiting it, and then, much like most Elder Scrolls games, you have a work that people find very interesting by virtue of its world, but devoid of reason to explore it. And even then, you have to make sure that the characters you do follow are the largest people on the screen, otherwise it doesn't work. Dune is a good example of this. It follows the history of the empire, but it does so from the people who are most pivotal to it. Chung Kuo does something similar over the course of eight books as it follows various movers, shakers, major players, and criminals through the "War of Two Directions" in its operatic storyline. All of this is a good example of worldbuilding. Hell, Felix Gilman has managed to do two full two-book sequences of it. Not great, but at least a little over par.

                             Now, why do I bring up all this discussion over worldbuilding to start a review of The Bone Season? Because first-time author Samantha Shannon has failed at it. While her world is compelling, she gives us no reason to explore it, and even less of a reason to follow it. For a book that tries to be so rich in detail, setting, and character, it arrives on the doorstep with a resoundingly stupid-sounding "thud". While part of this can be shrugged off by the fact that Ms. Shannon is a young author who has just got her first attempt published to almost overnight success, the fact that there are another six books apparently waiting in the chamber gives one pause. And while she has a good idea of a world and its political structure, an adventure story about people who are only just on the path towards ascending to any kind of power is not the best arena. Especially not for a world this big and complex.

                              Now, that's not to say it's entirely bad. but, well...

                               The Bone Season is the story of Paige Mahoney, a young woman who lives in a totalitarian England known as Scion. Scion was formed due to a huge influx of clairvoyants, or "voyants", and a need to regulate them by completely outlawing them. Why they didn't choose a more humane method of dealing with people who use their powers by intense regulation and perhaps a little institutionalized prejudice is one of the many mysteries in the book that get partially-solved at best, but screw it. Paige is a "dreamwalker", capable of both astral projection and actually invading other people's astral planes, known as "dreamscapes". Paige works with her talents for an unfortunately named "mime-lord*" (think a voyant mob boss and you're not far off.) named Jaxon Hall. One day, after a productive session of committing treason and trying to drag more people into a criminal enterprise, Paige panics at a routine stop and kills a Scion officer, then immediately has to go on the run.

And then things get weird.

                               Paige is captured, drugged with a hallucinogenic dart, and is brought to Oxford**, which has been renamed Sheol I. Here, she is conscripted for a period of psychic warfare, the titular "Bone Season", which happens once every twenty years, by a group of psychic vampires known as the Rephaim. The Rephaim fight a creepy group of eldritch abominations known as the Emim, nasty creatures who are recognizable by the buzzing sounds they make and the layers of rotting flesh they seem to slough off. Paige is now the sole charge and slave of Warden, a "blood-consort" who has never taken a human under his wing. If Paige is to survive, she will have to learn the rules of her world, and more importantly, just where she can break them. And more than anything else, she will have to trust her captor with her life.

                                  I suppose I should start with the main character, Paige. Never did I think in a billion years I would have to use the words "boringly defiant", but they fit. Paige is defiant without reason or cause. Yes, she's living in a police state where her very existence means she'd get sent to a chamber where they'd pump in nitrogen gas until she died, but Paige doesn't even exhibit signs of knowing where to hit. Her defiance is in a sense immaturity. Since she is just entering adulthood, that could explain it, but throughout the book she never seems to mature. She's the same person at the beginning, the same paranoid, argumentative, foolish pile of useless as she is at the end. And it gets really annoying. What gets worse is in the moments where she could grow, could take responsibility, could do something about her circumstances, she chooses not to do anything then. She's shown as capable of fighting in a rage against her inhuman captors, and indeed against humans formidably. But then she chooses not to use her powers against the brutal human collaborators in Sheol who don't have the same qualms about their own gifts. While the blurbs and some other reviewers find her compelling, there is nothing compelling about a labyrinth with a straight path from outside to center. I think that's actually called a "hallway". 

                                    Actually, the world is full of compelling characters. We don't get a good look at any of them because we're unwillingly welded to Paige and Paige's viewpoint, but in particular, Jaxon Hall and his organization are full of interesting people. Warden and the race of Rephaim are similarly interesting. But we're stuck with the least-compelling character of the bunch. The book would shape up a lot better if it had changing viewpoints, or even if Paige were more interesting or seemed more significant to the plot. Sadly, Shannon fails on all counts. To add to the frustration, a lot of characters who could have complex motivations are simply boiled down to being "evil" or "good"***. The collaborators are mostly evil, the Rephaim are mostly evil and brutal, and there are few standouts treated by Paige as severely untrustworthy. It's simplistic and it shouldn't be. 

                                   And to add to this, Paige joins Lord Eddard Stark in a category of characters who are too dumb to live. When she finally gets what she wants, when Warden finally begins to trust and respect her, giving her a test to find her way back to Sheol from the wilderness by daybreak, he leaves her with his supplies and a note reading "don't go south". Paige, thinking this is a trap and wanting to get out of it as soon as possible, also displaying unwarranted levels of hate for Warden, immediately bolts south and right into an eldritch abomination. Which...on its face seems like a good idea...she's been conscripted into a situation she doesn't understand and has to fight for her life and to keep from becoming a Performer, the lowest caste of humans in Sheol, but here's the thing: If someone is willing to put a whole ton of trust in you, they're asking for a mutual amount of trust. And if someone tells you "don't go south" because the area has been proven irrefutably to be infested by creepy rotting flesh fly things, ye hie your ass north.

                                       If that were the only issue, the characters, that would be one thing. But the best idea with this kind of work is, if you're going to focus on only one character, to reveal some things about the world gradually. A slow build. Samantha Shannon is a fan of simply dumping entire sections of her world-building on to the work like a chef over-seasoning their stew. We get history, setting, and several other kinds of work presented simply in blank exposition. When the crime syndicates are outlined, for example, we get the full history of the crime syndicates and how they operate on a daily basis. And while reading it, this doesn't seem so bad. But upon further reflection, it's a front-load. Marisha Pessl managed to make this interesting by revealing in bits with transmedia. Wingrove's Chung Kuo managed to do it with scope. Dune managed to do it with songs, stories, legends, snatches from a personal diary, and lore. Gilman is the closest to this with his Half-Made World and Ararat books, but even then the details come from conversations. Dispatches. Things like that.

                                         The Bone Season reveals its exposition in narration that would be better suited for a television show than any kind of novel. Blank expository narrative would work well if we were being shown it, but that leads to yet another problem. Shannon barely describes some things, but heaps description on others. It's uneven, and that issue keeps this from being either the somewhat grim adventure story or the serious attempt at building Scion that it's trying to be. The action is cinematic, and the descriptions are well enough, but the issue is that the wrong things get all the description. The Rephs are described in detail, rendering something otherworldly into a rather unsubtle not-vampire. By the same turn, everything else is somewhat worse-described. 

                                       But it's not all bad. Scion and Sheol are rich worlds, and a campaign for a roleplaying game set in either one would be well worth it. Shannon has a good grasp on her world and the details therein, but there are so many better directions to go in. Setting up the underworld and its workings in one book, for example, leaving the Rephaim for a later one. A gradual reveal would have made this feel better and allowed the reader the meat of the world that we don't get in the book's current state. As it stands, Scion is a rich world full of interesting characters, but we don't get to spend much time in it. Sheol is interesting in a post-apocalypse fashion, but it's so schizoid you might as well not bother.

                                            And in the end, that's what I have to say about this book. You might as well not bother. I know I'm probably slagging off on the next big thing, but for all the issues with this, on top of it being a seven-book series, avoid this book. It's not worth the time and effort you would put into it. Ms. Shannon, if you read this, please get an editor who can help you shape things a bit more. I like your style, but I did not enjoy your book. 

- Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
- Private Midnight by Kris Saknussemm
- It by Stephen King



*Also the title of the wizard in the fanfic I'm writing, Mime-Lord of Shannara. Which makes as much sense as anything Terry Brooks has actually written.
**This is known as "receiving one's letter of acceptance" and is the usual method one ends up at Oxford. Oh, those wacky dons. 
***  Let me just take a moment to address this: People no longer need to be just "evil" or "good". It's simplistic, regressive, and we've evolved beyond it. You don't want to go back to being apes, do you? So why do you want your stories to?

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