What do you get if you cross a bunch of Cockney geezers with an episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and an English degree from Oxford? Add a dash of Victoriana, a dystopian setting, plus a ballsy teenage heroine and you’ve got Bloomsbury’s latest ‘it’ novel, The Bone Season. It’s the first in a seven book series and has already been optioned for the Hollywood treatment by Andy Serkis’ production company, The Imaginaruim, nonetheless.
We follow nineteen year old Paige Mahoney, a young woman with clairvoyant abilities who spends all her time hanging out in dodgy dives working for a criminal gang. It’s 2059 and Britain’s just a bit different. An alternative history timeline means mediumship is very real, but also very illegal. Dubbed “unnaturals”, those with special powers (voyants) live secretly, hiding from the Orwellian government, Scion.
Hunted, seized and imprisoned, Paige is bundled off to a kind of slave labour camp where voyants are used and abused (and made to fight off some mysterious flesh chomping critters). She’s forced to bend to the will of her master, Arcturus (known as Warden), a giant being from a race of alien humanoids, called the Rephaim. These invaders have all taken up residence in Oxford (who wouldn’t? It’s got a lot going for it), now renamed Sheol I (She’ol is incidentally Hebrew for the underworld, and it’s populated by the Rephaim in the Jewish Bible). Paige must learn to survive, save her friends and work out just what the hell is going on between her and Warden.
On one level The Bone Season is pure page-turner; it moves easily in and around familiar tropes. It’s got the YA heroine with a very special gift who’s The Chosen One. There’s also the de rigueur future-gone-wrong which might remind you a little of The Hunger Games. Plus it’s got the staple of the YA category – a mismatched couple who hate each other. No, they love each other. No it’s definitely hate. No it’s…well, you know the score. The narrative moves along safe plot-lines here (although who knows what might happen later in the series). There are even a few passages of slightly awkward exposition when the chief villain reveals her dastardly plan to destroy humankind in true Bond baddie style.
But make no mistake, The Bone Season is also a rich, multi-layered and intelligent novel that’s any literature buff’s dream (and it’s no wonder; Shannon wrote it while studying for an English degree at Oxford). Each chapter is named after one of the works of metaphysical poet and theologian, John Donne while Warden is reading Frankenstein – the definitive story of master and slave. But just like in Mary Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece, the central relationship between Paige and Warden is complicated as we’re not really sure who’s pulling whose strings.
Shannon’s world building is top notch too; her mash-up of Victoriana, renaissance metaphysics, steampunk, theology and fantasy is a new and clever take. And it’s so detailed – the criminal underworld use Dickensian street slang, supplemented by a glossary as an appendix, while the opening pages reveal a revolutionary treatise written by Paige’s crime lord boss, Jaxon Hall, perfectly mimicking the style of historical pamphlets. This bubbling undercurrent of intertextuality and pastiche gives The Bone Season a much greater depth, reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (with its allusions to Paradise Lost, physics and religion, it’s arguably a better comparison than Suzanne Collins’ best-selling series).
The voyants and their clandestine world are excellently drawn too; we’re introduced to cartomancers, seers, oracles and mediums, as well as accurate portrayals of the Rider-Waite and Thoth tarot decks. Shannon’s clearly spent a lot of time working out the details of this alternative Britain where the “aether” is all around us, but only voyants can access it. Even a tarot reading and interpretation is neatly described; Shannon knows her stuff – she’s a writer who installs confidence.
The Bone Season’s familiar yet imaginative world-building will appeal to fans of YA writing, but Shannon’s book also resonates on a wider and deeper level (surely the descriptors of a successful series, like Harry Potter). Immensely readable and with a further six novels planned, it’s worth getting onboard now and enjoying the ride.
The Bone Season is out now and published by Bloomsbury. You can purchase a copy via this link: The Bone Season