'The Bone Season': too much of a good thing

The first of a seven-book young adult series is set in a dystopian London of the future

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If you've ever tried to make soup, you'll know that sometimes, even though all the ingredients sound delicious, they don't always make a flavorful mix.

"The Bone Season," the first installment in Samantha Shannon's ambitious and imaginative seven-book series, contains great ingredients, but the resulting soup is less than satisfying. It would have benefited from a vigorous session with a red pen.


By Samantha Shannon
Bloomsbury ($24).

"The Bone Season" is a dystopian fantasy set in a future London where clairvoyants are hunted down and killed for the crime of being unnatural. Ms. Shannon's ingredients include magic, evil government overlords, some steampunk elements (everyone in this future London wears Victorian-era clothes) and even a forbidden romance with an otherworldly (and, of course, superhumanly hot) dude with some suspiciously vampiric habits.

These elements have led critics to compare this novel to several other wildly successful young adult series, which I'm sure I don't need to list. I tried to consider this book in its own right, because those are difficult standards to pit any novel against.

But I realized about halfway through why "The Bone Season" draws those comparisons so frequently. "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games" were all seminal young adult novels -- each one started a new trend, with dozens of similar books coming in their wake.

"The Bone Season" reads like a response to these trends rather than a groundbreaking work of its own. The story starts in Scion London, where main character Paige works for the local underground mafia. She's a dreamwalker, an extremely rare type of clairvoyant who can send her mind out of her body.

We meet her gang, a motley crew of other magical people, each with their own tenuously defined psychic ability, and about five different terms we need to remember for each of those abilities: the official definition (generally some iteration of -omancer), the slang term for their ability, the insulting slang term for their ability, and a few nicknames tossed in for good measure.

Consequently, our intrepid heroine seems to be speaking in tongues for the first few chapters. She revolves between fourth-wall rupturing infodumps and conversations with her fellow gang members that are so dense with slang that I was forced to refer to the 10-page glossary to decipher the speech.

Don't get me wrong -- I love invented language in fantasy novels, and Ms. Shannon has a real ear for making up believable sounding words. But in fiction, the reader should be given enough hints to deduce a word's meaning by the second or third time we come across it. Glossaries feel like cheating to me.

The introduction will leave you with far more questions about the plausibility of this world than it answers, but if you make it past that, things pick up. Paige is captured by anti-clairvoyant patrol and hauled to the city formerly known as Oxford. Now it's Sheol I, a prison where an alien race known as the Rephaim collect clairvoyant humans to fend off bloodthirsty monsters attacking our planet.

Our plot makes its nebulous way from here. There were a few intriguing discoveries planted along the way, but overall I was left wishing that the editors had been more ruthless in snipping extraneous scenes and filling the gaping plot holes.

There are some highlights. Ms. Shannon writes a killer action sequence, and her hints at underlying political machinations will keep you turning pages toward the end. It's enjoyable to watch Paige grow organically from the untrusting, go-it-alone type into a leader, too. This, coupled with Ms. Shannon's knack for engaging visuals, salvages some of the story line.

Ms. Shannon is clearly a very imaginative author, and this novel bursts with vivid scenery and inventions. But "The Bone Season" is a case of overspicing the soup. If she had cut out a few of the less-relevant ideas and focused more energy on her core concepts, those tasty kernels would have cooked into something truly delicious. On the bright side, she'll have six more books to hone her ideas, so here's hoping the next installment is more palatable.

"The Bone Season" touches on some familiar and well-loved young adult themes: rebellion, subverting tyranny, finding your place in the world and learning your own strengths (and forbidden romance, of course), but in the end, it doesn't have anything new to say.


Ellen Goodlett (ellengoodlett@gmail.com) is a Pittsburgh native and writer living in New York.


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