Faren Miller reviews Samantha Shannon
Similar elements get updated in the troubled future England of The Bone Season, first in a proposed septology (already optioned for filming) by a new author who’s barely into her twenties, yet unafraid to embark on an ambitious saga combining SF, fantasy, and horror, adventure and romance, in approximately equal measure. Readers may be wary of the latest object of media frenzy targeting young consumers, but even in a volume more than 450 pages long, Samantha Shannon shows a gift for the succinct, avoiding rambling exposition in the first-person narrative and confining most dialogues to brief exchanges of words.
Though it’s set in and around London less than five decades from now (2059), things went alternate considerably earlier. The cruel republic known as Scion arose
in response to perceived threat to the [British] empire. The epidemic, they called it – an epidemic of clairvoyance. The official date was 1901, when they pinned five terrible murders on Edward VII. They claimed the Bloody King had opened a door that could never be shut, that he’d brought the plague of clairvoyance upon the world and that his followers were everywhere, breeding and killing, drawing their power from a source of great evil.
After an Edwardian Era with a king who was apparently part Jack the Ripper, and a plague far from the inventions of Steampunk, this England mingles the 21st century with something more like Neryn’s Alban, where weird abilities survive on the fringes, despite every attempt to stamp them out. While the official government account distorts at least as much as it reveals, something did link worlds and transform a number of ordinary people into ‘‘voyants’’ and ‘‘unnaturals’’ – maybe not as villainous as Scion paints them, but certainly the targets of its wrath.
Some avoid becoming victims by turning to crime. When she realized that she could never be normal (or legally exist), young heroine and narrator Paige Mahoney found refuge in the city’s criminal underground, using her rare talent of ‘‘dreamwalking’’ (mind-reading via deep trances) for her new boss and his gang of thieves: ‘‘So long as I had life support, I could pick up on the aether within a mile radius of Seven Dials. So if he needed someone to dish the dirt on what was happening in I-4, you could bet your broads Jaxon would call yours truly.’’
When they learn of Paige, a far more secretive group wants to use her for their own complex agenda. They kidnap her and drag her off to headquarters that had once been Oxford University, forgotten and semi-ruinous long after Scion banned higher learning (along with so much else). Amid discussions of linked worlds and various forms of clairvoyance – elaborately laid out in a chart before the tale begins, but essentially mysterious till now – her captors also explain the Bone Season as a ‘‘harvest,’’ once a decade, where they take promising young voyants away from lives that had been mostly devoted to evading Scion.
By favoring this teen’s salty, no-nonsense voice over baroque amounts of description or exposition, Samantha Shannon manages to interweave an increasingly complex storyline with long flashbacks to Paige’s years in the London gang (and her hidden ardor for one fellow criminal), in prose that flows more swiftly and naturally than you might expect. While this young writer can approach the mix of genres in her debut with a fervency that borders on the overwrought, most of the time her even younger heroine manages to bring a soaring saga of hearts, minds, and worlds solidly back down to earth. Shannon may not have reached the league of grand masters like Dickens or Shaw, but Pip and Eliza Doolittle both dealt with their own Londons in much the same way.