A Review of “The Bone Season” and a Discussion of Writing, Publishing, New Authors, and Plot

For the regular readers that came for a new recipe, I apologize. I came to write about Butternut Squash Gnocchi. Instead, I’ve written about a new novel. I can’t help it. I am a reader to my core, and the delicious lure of new stories and the discussion and ideas that they spark is too wonderful to ignore. Normal routine will soon return, but I see more reading (and more book reviews) in my future. **For those of you who have not quite finished the book–I’ve done my best to keep this review fairly spoiler-free.

————

There are some days that I feel like I will never settle back into “a routine”. I am still trying to shake off the last dregs of our summer’s schedule of on-your-feet, mostly computer screen-less hours. My eyes are stubbornly resisting the adjustment to sitting behind a laptop for several hours a day and my body is retaliating with strained vision, facial tension, and a slow, stiff body. Jaw tension is almost always a problem for me, as I tend to clench my jaw and grind my teeth when I’m stressed. Though nothing is particularly stressful, I think that I’ve started to hold my jaw clenched as I sit at my computer and I’m paying for it with headaches. I am still battling all these ailments with yoga after walking Punc every morning, and will continue to do so as I push through to some state of normalcy. In the meantime, I’m keeping my screens on a low brightness setting and trying to pay close attention to my posture and taking ample breaks.

M and I are also trying to cram in the last of our summer plans, before we are truly bogged down with autumn and the responsibilities and late work hours that it brings. We drove down to North Carolina this weekend, for his nephew’s birthday. It was a lovely, relaxing time and I think the long drive did us especially good. Not so surprising for M, who uses driving as his time to chill out and was missing the road now that his commute has shrunk to the two mile stretch between our house and his venue. I don’t do as well on roadtrips (probably as I am not the one driving), but M loaded up a new audiobook that he ‘thought I might like’. It was a book called The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. I knew nothing about it when M turned it on–I hadn’t even read a synopsis. But within minutes, we were dragged down into the gritty streets of a dystopian London, with a truly intriguing quirk: a rising spread of clairvoyance throughout the society. We listened to the novel for the entire ride down and most of the way back. When we got home, I went online to purchase the NookBook so that I wouldn’t be bound to M’s Audible account to finish the book. I finished on the third day, having spent much of the previous days at the party and socializing.

Here is the Barnes & Noble Overview:

It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

The Bone Season introduces a compelling heroine—a young woman learning to harness her powers in a world where everything has been taken from her.

This is book one in a seven-part series that I intend on following. I enjoyed The Bone Season: it covered several topics (Victorian London, clairvoyance, and a few religious references) with which I was unfamiliar. That was one of the first things I realized as we listened–how much research formed the basis of the new world that Samantha Shannon created. Of course, that would be pretty key to any dystopian novel, but as I mentioned, since I was fairly unknowledgeable about it, each tiny detail was a very interesting discovery. I loved the world that Shannon created–as though every ingredient was purposely chosen to intrigue me.

I did a little research and found out the the author is 21 years old. Wait…a 90s child is publishing a novel? The first of seven, with talks of a movie, and comparisons to JKR and Suzanne Collins? Not to mention, it had only been released on August 20th. When M said “new”, I guess he truly meant it.

I am actually rereading the book now–that was one rather clunky bit regarding my first introduction to The Bone Season: I listened to the audio book first. I am most definitely a visual learner. I am very good with names and guessing at words due to roots and spelling, etc. M, the sound guy, obviously, is an audio learner. And audio books are perfect for the car, yes, but they are far from ideal for me. Personally, I would not recommend the first encounter with The Bone Season to be through the audio book unless you are an audio-type. I live with a British man, but listening to a book by a British author, read by an Irish reader, about an Irish protagonist relocated to England, with a Victorian-esque society that kept the slang of that time period, along with many “world terms” of her original creation…*breath*…made for a jarring listen. As I mentioned, I am rereading the parts that I listened to and I truly have no problem reasoning out the words when I can look at them and reread the spelling, syntax, and other attributes. Samantha Shannon even includes a pronunciation key on her website which does help readers. It is mostly helpful, but listening to the audiobook did give me, as a an American reader, closer pronunciations than written in that post. In most instances, the written pronunciation does not account for the Brits’ softened ‘R’–Paige’s last name “Mahoney” is written to “MAR-nee”, but with the softened “R”, ultimately sounds closer to M-AH (like in “appetite”)-[__]-nee, with a soft breathy non-syllable in between “ah” and “nee” to account for “hon”. (Update: Samantha Shannon commented on my twitter link that she does pronounce “Mahoney” as “MAR-nee”, as listed in her pronunciation guide. The Irish reader used the Irish pronunciation of the surname as I showed here.). Easier to explain in type, another example is the Magdalen House, which is written to be pronounced “MORD-len” and sounds more like “MAUD-len”. Perhaps it is just my American ears (I have a not-so-funny story about how I thought is was DaRlek, as opposed to Dalek for a pitiful week), but while the pros outweigh the cons to actually reading the book on the page first, I would even suggest taking the time to listen to the audiobook on a return read.

It is clear that Samantha Shannon is a young writer–certain expositional elements slowed down the pace and there were occasionally unwieldy scenes. There were even one or two times where I had to stop, sigh, and stare at the page with a “seriously” look, but, in spite of those minor obstacles, I was drawn into loving the characters and being captivated by the world. I recommended it to E and two other friends before I even finished reading. And when I had finished the book, I went to look for interesting tidbits on the internet. Only…there wasn’t really much. Beyond reviews, and the author’s personal blog and twitter, there was one tumblr of the self-proclaimed official artist and a half-complete wiki. I have never been “ahead of the game”, so to speak, with a popular novel and I didn’t really know what to do without the endless posts and pictures from fans. So instead, I looked further into what was there. Samantha started her blog shortly after signing her contract with Bloomsbury in April 2012. The blog is just as intriguing as her novel. She covers every piece of the publishing process that she is allowed to discuss. She is still writing now, but I have gone back and am reading from the beginning. The blog itself, is a great resource for anyone interested in the writing and publishing process. Samantha interviews various crucial members of the publishing process, discusses author ailments, narrates the editing process, and answers questions. She offers a multitude of references to websites and books about writing, editing, and manuscript submission. Best of all, she readily doles out her advice in a friendly, welcoming manner.

In reading Samantha’s blog, as well as several other reviews, I was set to thinking about the publishing industry. From the beginning, any mention of Samantha Shannon or The Bone Season inevitably included a comparison to JKR. As Samantha was quick to point out: she and JKR share similarities in their book deals with Bloomsbury, not with the actual content of the books. Later reviews also discuss how both authors received somewhat mixed reviews (some recycled ideas, but with fresh characters, wonderfully created worlds, etc) while the majority of readers became quite loyal to the books. In reviews, the content of The Bone Season is compared to The Hunger Games and ever so occasionally, in discussion of Shannon’s place among new, unknown authors rising quickly, Stephanie Meyer might be mentioned. The constant comparisons make me want to bang my head against the desk. There will always be comparisons when discussing new novels. In preview-type articles, authors will always name-drop other authors, other series. Those keywords grab reader attention and, before the release, can garner a lot more attention than an article without those famous mentions would. But after the release, especially, the comparisons become more and more frustrating. In this day and age, there will always be another piece of literature, or a movie, or a television show with similar elements to a new story. We have an incredible wealth of all three, and now, with self-publishing, web series, and youtube, it is even easier to get your content, your story out into the public’s eye. But it also makes it impossible to be completely original.

If we can remember back our school days, we all learned (I would hope) about the “Basic Plots” somewhere between the grammar quizzes and book reports of our English class. If we boil down and strip away every plot in the entire history of story-telling, there is one key element: conflict. One element, One Basic Plot in all of the stories ever told. If we want to expand on conflict, we can add in recognition of a basic “tone” of the overall story and can then reach Foster-Harris’ The Three Basic Plots: the happy ending (a character sacrifices for the benefit of an other), the unhappy ending (character acts logically ‘right’, does not sacrifice, ultimately fails), and those with with the literary plot (this does not depend on decision, but on fate–think Oedipus Rex, where the ‘event’ has occurred and the character can do nothing to change it, simply fight against the slow fall into tragedy). So now we have expanded to three plots, which, in theory, should be able to encompass every story ever told into one of those three categories. Let’s add more detail and sort the types of conflicts that can happen in all of the stories ever told (these are the plot types I remember studying the most)–according to a librarian (and my English teacher) there are Seven Basic Plots: man v. nature, man v. man, man v. the environment, man v. machines/technology, man v. the supernatural, man v. self, and men v. god/religion. With the few more details to classify, we have more categories, but still have millions of stories in each of the seven categories. We can continue this classifying–adding more distinguishing elements and increasing the number of categories: Ronald Tobias proposes Twenty Basic Plots by again, detailing the conflict (Metamorphosis, Quest, Sacrifice, Forbidden Love, to name a few). Georges Polti expands the categories again into Thirty-Six Basic Plots. (All of this plot information came from this page. More information about all categories and classifications can be found there.) Even if Polti’s is the best system of classification, that still means that there are only thirty-six categories that encompass every single story that has ever been told.

Of course there will be similarities in a new story to countless others that came before it. It is absurd to expect complete originality, and it is this culture of calling for “complete originality” (to be fair, mostly from nay-sayer readers, as opposed to any professionals in the publishing industry) and this propensity of writing off books, television, and movies due to sharing elements with other stories that drives me crazy. What our culture should be looking for in new stories is enough fresh elements–be they completely new or simply spun in a different way–that the new story is interesting. Most of our culture do–that is why we having raging, dedicated fans to every story, and many fans who follow several books/movies/television with equal fervor. I live for intriguing characters, and the surprising, enchanting little details of worlds. I highly appreciate a beautifully woven plot, but with strong characters in an unusual world, I am able to forgive a few stumbles and thorns in a plot line. This is why I am so fond of The Bone Season. The characters have lovely development and the world is beautifully crafted. Samantha is also one of the queens of The Trail of Breadcrumbs, leaving just enough hints to keep her readers hot on the trail. For instance, Samantha Shannon does not tell the main character’s name until page 20. Now, naturally, had I, personally, picked up the book in a store, or even online, I would have read the summary and immediately established that the main character was Paige. But, listening to an audiobook without any knowledge, I was left to a tantalizing wait until I could have a sliver of identification for this character that was telling her story. I’m still waiting for more details on Jaxon Hall and his Seals, on clairvoyants in London, and far more details regarding the Rephaim, Scion, Nick, the world outside Britain, Sheol I, and many, many other people and places that were just introduced in this first novel. I am enjoying wondering just how and when we will find out these details. I am also confident that the author will progress, as all authors do, after cutting her teeth in the publishing process. The tiny snags in exposition and plot that peeked out in The Bone Season, I expect, will be resolved within the following novels.

I would have to admit that Samantha Shannon has a very good hook–I am certainly sold and eagerly awaiting the second novel. I hope that a few more people might approach new media with a slightly more open mind after this post, but at the very least, I feel better for opening this discussion. If you came here for a food recipe, I apologize. I came here to write about soft little pillows of Butternut Squash Gnocchi…instead, I have my first book review (sort of) and a discussion on new authors and stories. Oops! I’ll have that Gnocchi for you as soon as I can!