I recently read the “highly anticipated” novel The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon. Reading this book just confirmed two of my beliefs:
1) Marketing campaigns can easily hurt the books they are promoting.
2) The best non-fiction authors do an amazing job of incorporating facts seamlessly into their stories.
First, point one. Marketing campaigns can hurt books and disappoint their readers.
All the readers who reviewed The Bone Season on Goodreads seemed to feel the same way about it I did. Way too much information being thrown out, with a beginning that is almost comical thanks to its info-dumping. I wanted to love this book so much (as did every other reviewer on Goodreads, it seemed). A cool young woman publishing a hit? What isn’t there to love about that story. Someone, somewhere compared this poor girl to JK Rowling and immediately set her up for failure. As we saw with The Cuckoo’s Calling, JK Rowling’s writing can’t even build a new JK Rowling-level of success. The blurbs for this book are also overly optimistic–U.S.A. Today called The Bone Season a combination of George Orwell and J.R.R. Tolkein! No pressure, right? What this means is the expectations for The Bone Season were incredibly high. Readers were expecting an Orwellian brand-new Lord of the Rings series that could create a Potter-worthy hysteria. With that sort of hype, of course readers are going to be disappointed. I often feel this way when a book is declared a “hit of the summer” or “next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or “new Hunger Games”.
In Janet Maslin’s brilliant and brutal review of The Bone Season at the New York Times, she calls it “a human interest story, not a book.” She points out that much of the hype around the book has been on the author and her success-the movie options, the money. Obviously the average reader isn’t looking for a literary masterpiece, but the fact that books have become hollow hype machines similar to blockbuster movies is something to notice.
And that brings me to point two: The Bone Season’s writing itself. It takes skill to make information become digestible and the best non-fiction authors are masters of this. I think studying how great non-fiction incorporates facts into vivid stories would absolutely help The Bone Season become readable. This is such an information-laden book (granted, the information conveyed is regarding a fictional world but there is a ton of it), I think it would have benefitted from a more journalistic narrative. Great non-fiction books pack an incredible amount of information into a readable story. I think The Bone Season would have benefited from the focus on creativity and details which build a picture of the facts. There is a saying in writing that you “Show, don’t tell,” and The Bone Season is a book of telling. Great non-fiction manages to show all its information. Spillover, a non-fiction book by David Quammen about the spread of zoonotic diseases, is 600 pages of scientific facts and history. Quammen is such a brilliant writer that these facts go unnoticed in the story. Bad Pharma, a huge non-fiction book covering the pharmaceutical industry’s faults, reads more clearly than The Bone Season. I think great non-fiction has the ability to place the reader in a story rather than simply conveying a story’s information. I also think this was exactly what The Bone Season was lacking. The Bone Season was a textbook of information, a list of ideas with little explanation as to why we should care.
How would I fix The Bone Season? Clearly there is a world inside Samantha Shannon that needs to get out. We all want to hear about this world she has created and fall in love with it, we just need her to show us what its like there. I would start with Paige at the protests in Ireland when she was six. Make that the introduction to a book entirely based upon Scion’s beginnings in a world which sees ghosts, and Scion’s growth from Paige’s view. Cut the rest of the plot, with its aliens and secret islands. Get rid of some action and focus on the context. I would focus on conveying all that information thrown at us in The Bone Season’s first chapter into an entire book, tidbit by slow tidbit. Once we understand the creepy world under Scion rule in a clear way, other books could bring in more information. The second book could focus on Paige’s gang, and allow us to get to know them better. And maybe, by the third book, when all this information is embedded into our memories in a less overwhelming way, we could approach the whole alien demon species thing. We’re all cheering for you, Samantha, but please give us something we can work with next time!
There is some absolutely great and really dark stuff in The Bone Season. The idea of masks that seal to a person’s face, making them unrecognizable, was wonderful. The terms of endearment were beautifully executed in the dialogue, pulling off a new-world slang that rang true. There is a lot of great stuff here, and I will definitely read the next book with hopes of a smoother story.