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'The Bone Season' review: A fantasy maze

"The Bone Season" by Samantha Shannon.

"The Bone Season" by Samantha Shannon. Credit: Handout

THE BONE SEASON, by Samantha Shannon. Bloomsbury, 466 pp., $24.

Even without the blare of publicity declaring 21-year-old author Samantha Shannon to be the next J.K. Rowling, anyone would be tempted to draw the comparison based on one fact: "The Bone Season," Shannon's debut novel, opens a projected seven-book fantasy series. As Lord Voldemort says when planning to split his soul into parts to ensure his immortality: "Isn't seven the most powerfully magical number?"

In the post-Harry Potter world, it certainly is. If there's a reason to spread the story of "The Bone Season" over seven books, it isn't apparent from the first installment, recently announced as a selection of the new "Today" show book club. A "bone season," a fascistic roundup of outlawed clairvoyants half a century forward in London's imagined future, occurs every 10 years: Why not 10 books? The only clear reason for a sequel is that Shannon has spent every page of this book laying down a dense quilt of fabricated language, which, the literary gods willing, may be fluffed up into an actual story in the next volume.

Our heroine, a feisty Irish girl named Paige, has survived on the streets of Scion London (SciLo) because she's the mollisher (protégé) of a mime-lord (a leader in a crime syndicate that uses clairvoyants for underground business). She is a particularly valuable asset because she is secretly a dreamwalker: She can project herself through the aether (the realm of the spirits) in a way that makes her a good spy.

Don't worry if the terms are confusing; readers are supplied with a glossary and a chart listing the 51 types of clairvoyants (summoners, gustants, aichmomancers, etc.). At this point, there is a squeak of protest from those in the peanut gallery who take pleasure in the sound of words. It's difficult to find a satisfying pronunciation for many of Shannon's neologisms. Should "amaurotics" -- her equivalent of "muggles" -- be said "a-MORE-otics" or "a-MOW-rotics"? And the proper names! If we are to fear Gomeisa and Thuban, we must be able to roll their powerful monikers thrillingly on the tongue.

The outlines of Shannon's Scion England are pretty simple. Clairvoyants have always been among us. Shannon proposes an alternate British history, in which the government has been fighting an epidemic of clairvoyance since Victorian times, culminating in the establishment of Scion, a repressive government devoted to rooting out all citizens with paranormal powers.

Everyone assumes these citizens are being executed. Paige discovers the truth is far creepier. Apprehended after accidentally exercising her emerging power, she is taken to Sheol I, a penal colony occupying the old town of Oxford. (Readers can feel the author's affection for the place; details of the university buildings are the one place where Shannon's descriptions really come alive.) Here jailers train clairvoyants to fight in a battle that, we hope, will become clearer in successive volumes. Suffice it to say that the captive humans are enslaved to otherworldly creatures called the Rephaim, who seem to be in cahoots with Scion leaders.

Anyone who reads young-adult literature will recognize that the male Rephaim who claims Paige as his slave is sure to become a love interest. To begin with, he is the consort of the horrible female at the head of the occupying force. What's more, he demonstrates vulnerability by oozing chartreuse blood from a mysterious wound. We don't know quite what he looks like -- he is tall and broad-chested, of course -- but we know he is deeply sexy because his eyes are . . . well, yellow, normally . . . but also unfathomable.

Shannon will no doubt focus more on traditional writing strengths once she settles in with her new vocabulary. Here is a violent struggle between Paige and Aludra, one of the Rephaim: "I had one chance to live. As she held the knife to my cheek, I pushed my spirit into the aether. In spirit form, I saw through new eyes, on a new plane. Here, I was sighted. The aether appeared as a silent void, studded with starlike orbs, each orb a dreamscape. Aludra was physically close to me; her 'orb,' consequently, wasn't too far away."

Many series do pick up steam as they go along; J.K. Rowling famously developed writing muscle over the course of her books; no one would have picked "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (its original British title) as a sure thing. But someone at Bloomsbury should be giving Shannon at least this one piece of writing advice: Show, don't tell.

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