Explanations and Expectations: what is “The Next Big Thing?”

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Title: The Bone Season

Author: Samantha Shannon

Genre: Fantasy/Dystopian

Publishing Info: August 2013 by Bloomsbury USA

Jukebox: The main character Paige Mahoney’s strongest trait is her tenacity. She never loses sight of her goal to escape her captors and go back to her old life in the London underworld. Florence Welch, lead singer of Florence + the Machine, has that tenacity in her voice, no matter what she’s singing. In “You’ve Got the Love,” Florence is singing about a love that will pull her through thick and thin. Regardless of the lyrics’ relevance, I think of Paige when I hear Florence belt out all her angst:

I can see why so many people are debating whether Samantha Shannon will be the next J.K. Rowling. I can also see that comparing The Bone Season to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is a terribly unfair comparison.

Shannon wrote her debut novel The Bone Season when she was a 21-year old student at St. Anne’s College. She got her big break when she interned with her future agent David Godwin. Even before the book came out, everybody started drawing comparisons to not only Harry Potter, but also Twilight AND The Hunger Games. Now, I don’t particularly like Twilight or the Hunger Games, but it’s obvious that those series and their authors have had incredibly successful careers (movies, crazy fanbases, etc.). So it seems that The Bone Season, which has been picked up by Andy Serkis’s Imaginarium studios and 20th Century Fox for a movie, is following the same path. But does that mean it should be compared to three of the most popular YA fantasy series in the last five years? Talk about impossible standards.

Plus, however flattering it may be to be up there with the likes of Harry Potter, it’s always a little sad when critics would rather say “Shannon is the new Rowling” than say “Shannon is NEW!” It’s hard enough these days to hash out fresh, original stuff without people immediately tagging you as “The next _insert famous author here_.”

If we evaluate The Bone Season without acknowledging all the comparisons, and keep in mind that this monster of a book was written by a 21-year old student, then Shannon’s debut novel is a great first effort. Shannon has laid down a ton of groundwork that she can explore in her projected six other books in the series (Seven books? Really? I wonder if that’s the agent, publisher, or Shannon talking). The world Shannon creates is refreshing, if familiar:

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London, 2059. Humans are divided into two groups: normal and clairvoyant. There are several kinds of clairvoyance powers, but all of them are able to access and manipulate the aether, or the spirit realm. London is run as a police state, controlled by the Scion agency, whose one goal is to find all the clairvoyants, arrest them, and kill them because of their unnaturalness. Paige Mahoney, the 19-year old main character, works in the underground crime network of clairvoyants. She is a dreamwalker, a rare and therefore valuable kind of clairvoyant. When she’s arrested, she is taken to the lost city of Oxford instead of being killed. Rephaim, the humanoid but not human race, govern the city and enslave the human clairvoyants to help fight off flesh-eating monsters called the Emim. As Paige meets and comes to know her mysterious Rephaim keeper, Warden, she also explores the city, makes friends, and tries to find a way back to London.

Phew. Everything’s much more complicated than that, but you get the idea. The clairvoyance system that Shannon creates is both her strong point and her most confusing one. In the first few chapters, it was obvious that Shannon is a first-time, big-scale writer. There was a lot of not-so-subtle exposition (“infodumping,” I believe it’s called) to try and explain all the details of the underground clairvoyant gangs, as well as what exactly a dreamwalker like Paige could do. Consequently, the chart detailing the types of clairvoyants and the map of Oxford are extremely helpful while reading. I like Shannon’s idea of reimagining the traditional skepticism towards clairvoyants, card-reading, ghosts, and mediums into a race of unnatural humans persecuted because of their “disease,” but hopefully she will address all of the still vague areas of her world building in future books.

The jerkiness of the first-person POV also indicated that Shannon was still getting used to being in the mind of her main character. Many phrases seemed like they were for younger audiences even though they dealt with darker, more adult themes. The mantra of my high school english teachers, “Show, don’t tell,” sounded in my head repeatedly while I was reading. With that advice in mind, I believe one more revision would have made The Bone Season a tighter, more effective book in terms of the writing. Shannon’s narrative is also permeated with a lot of fun clairvoyant slang, inspired partly by the 19th century London criminal underworld. However, in the beginning the terms are flung at us with no explanation, and it’s disorienting until you gain enough context. Or you could be smarter than I was and realize there’s a glossary in the back. Shannon’s writing does calm down and even out, so if you can deal with knowing only 70% of what’s going on in the first few chapters, it’s worth it when the setting shifts to Oxford.

I could list more inconsistencies, but everyone, remember again that Shannon just graduated from college last year. I’m reviewing someone who’s only a couple years older than I am. Yes, Shannon still has a lot to learn in organizing her plot details, working up to a romance, and executing the big final battle, but I was so impressed by the daring and scope of this first book, that I am definitely reading the second book when it comes out in October 2014. I am excited to see how Shannon has learned from her debut novel and have no doubt she will keep improving. Will it be the next Harry Potter? No, of course not. No author or book can ever forge the exact same career path as another. Will it be a treasured YA fantasy series? That depends on how Shannon and her writing grow and change in her future books. My high expectations come not from the careless comparisons to famous YA series, but from the intriguing world Shannon has begun to explore in The Bone Season.

Rating: 7 – good: would recommend, above average, has some problems but I can deal

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Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It didn’t end well.

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Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy

Titles: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Days of Blood and Starlight, Dreams of Gods and Monsters

Author: Laini Taylor

Label: Realistic Fantasy

Published in: Dreams of Gods and Monsters was published in April 2014.

Jukebox: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in b-flat minor is a vast landscape of color and emotion. The piece begins in a furious tantrum, waltzes through memories of happiness, and ends in a deep, sighing grief. As I was practicing this piece, I realized that its volatile atmosphere matched many of the scenes from Taylor’s story. It’s a long piece, so feel free to let it play in the background as you read. Here is my take on the sonata:

The world that Laini Taylor builds in this series is very complex and very thorough.  Much like The Hunger Games series, each book in the trilogy represents a different stage in the overall conflict: Daughter of Smoke and Bone introduces readers to Karou, an art student in Prague who lives with a family of chimaera (creatures made up of different animal parts, like, for example, a gryphon). She helps collect teeth for Brimstone, her chimaera father, but has no idea why he needs them. When she meets and falls in love with the angel Akiva, she discovers that she is part of a thousand-year war between angels and chimaera in the parallel world of Eretz. Days of Blood and Starlight deals with the aftermath of war and the process of organizing a rebellion. Karou, in discovering her past self, realizes that Akiva has betrayed her and her family. While Karou works, she deals with her desolation and slowly recovers, reacquainting her past self with her current self. Dreams of Gods and Monsters begins with a rebellion and ends by bursting the entire story wide open. Karou and Akiva discover a backstory to the backstory they thought they had figured out. The war between angels and chimaera, no longer contained in Eretz, collides with human history on Earth. Karou and Akiva achieve their main goal, to end war and tyranny, only to discover an even bigger threat to their newly acquired peace.

As anyone can see from the plot overview, Laini Taylor has created a layered world inhabited by well-rounded characters. But rarely do I encounter an author who can build complex worlds and characters while maintaining a hilarious narrative voice. She tells her story like an epic legend through beautiful, dream-like prose but also keeps everyone sane with hilarious dialogue. Taylor’s blend of epic description and humorous reality-checks is effective because she understands when to reveal a crucial piece of plot and when to take a step back and note the ridiculousness of a situation. As Karou and her best friend Zuzana watch the angel and chimaera armies attempt to form an alliance and share their food rations, Zuzana remarks:

You know what would be good now?” Zuzana whispered, when the sounds of spoons on plates had mostly quieted. “Chocolate. Never attempt an alliance without chocolate.

With that statement, it’s impossible not to smile in one of the most tense situations of the series. Taylor balances these quips with abundant richness of description: she develops both her characters and her world with care, treating the color of a tree’s leaves with the same curious reverence as a  soldier’s fatigue. She describes one of Karou’s “aha!” moments with lyricism:

Her heart started to pound. An idea was taking shape. She didn’t give voice to it, but let its traceries unfurl, following them and searching for defects, anticipating what the arguments would be against it. Could it be this simple?

Taylor offers the perfect blend of quirky humor and sad beauty. The only other author I know who is able to manage such a balance is Tamora Pierce with her Tortall series.

Taylor boasts a solid cast of characters too. The main couple, Karou and Akiva, are definitely an OTP (One True Pairing). Their forbidden relationship, centered around a period of happiness surrounded by grief and loss, is strangely attractive. But the supporting characters make this series especially well-rounded: Karou’s best friend Zuzana is a tiny, feisty puppeteer, master of the eyebrow arch. She is the reason for every uncontrollable bout of laughter I had while reading:

Zuzana Nováková was a pretty girl. She’d often been compared to a doll, or to a fairy, not just because of her slight stature but also her fine, small face…Deciding to take her on was akin to a fish deciding idly to gobble up that pretty light bobbing in the shadows and then— OH GOD THE TEETH THE HORROR!— meeting the anglerfish on the other side. Zuzana didn’t eat people. She withered them.”

Other memorable characters: Akiva’s sister Liraz is an uncrackable warrior with so many chimaera death tallies on her hands that her arms look like black sleeves. The White Wolf, leader of the chimaera rebellion, is full of plying charm and an unnerving love of killing. Again, I could go on.

Taylor’s handling of the crossover between Eretz and Earth, between fiery angels, demon-like chimaera and humans, is also applaud-worthy. She takes a very basic human belief, and asks us to re-evaluate it: Angels are good, and demons are bad, right? Then who do we support when the war between the two invades our daily lives on Earth? Should Liraz be punished because of the chimaera she’s killed or be honored? Should Karou’s surrogate father Brimstone die because he has scary horns? Taylor reminds us that all of our preconceptions started from a whisper, a rumor, a story. This idea that basic human beliefs are all relative appears much more in Dreams of Gods and Monsters. As Taylor rewrites Eretz’s history and consequently Earth’s history, the feeling that “nothing makes sense anymore” is just present enough to tip the reader off balance.

Of course, whenever an author tries to bend time and space and history, there is always a chance that the story arc will spiral out of control. Halfway through the final book, I started worrying about how Taylor was going to tie everything together. Using her third book to expand the backstory and character roster was risky. Just look at George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series–HBO might finish it before he does! As I mentioned, Taylor ends her story a bit unconventionally:

It was not a happy ending, but a happy middle— at last, after so many fraught beginnings.

Most of the time, ending with a beginning just leaves fans totally pissed off.  But Taylor wraps up her initial plot neatly and leaves us with the knowledge of a satisfying future ordeal. Because she reassures readers that each character has a renewed purpose, we are content to end in this intersection. After all, if you survive reading all three books, you’ve also survived a war, a rebellion, and a prophecy with these characters. So when Taylor asks us to let these beloved fictional people go, we trust in their ability to attack the endless future possibilities. It’s An End, not The End.

If Taylor ever decides to write a fourth book, I’m 100% positive that she’ll create an epic journey filled with renewed vigor. She has set up more than enough material to explore. But if she doesn’t, that’s fine too. Though I’m accustomed to getting my happy endings like everybody else is, I sit here wholly satisfied and deeply touched.

Rating: 9 – so crazy good that if the plot, characters, and world were real I would just run away and join them