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Book review: The Bone Season, By Samantha Shannon

For all its ingenuity and imagination, the first episode in a magical series lacks the human touch

If you liked Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Night Circus, don't expect too much of The Bone Season. Yes, it's published by Bloomsbury, six sequels are planned and the film rights have been sold; yes, blood is found nourishing by some characters; yes, teenagers have to hurtle through forests confronting fantastical, often bone-chewing foes, and yes, battles between aura-challenging voyants are big. But its author, who has just completed an English degree at Oxford, may live to regret committing herself to seven books.

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Samantha Shannon has a fertile imagination, and there are promising elements. It is set in 2059, in a parallel England taken over since 1901 by Scion, a republic dedicated to stamping out the clairvoyance that had become a threat to the empire ever since the reign of Edward VII – no, not that Edward VII, but his son Prince Eddie, who outlived his father rather than pre-deceasing him, and who was reputed to have been Jack the Ripper. Our heroine is feisty Paige Mahoney, an unusually gifted clairvoyant classified as a dreamwalker. Given her penchant for helping unfortunates, she is inexplicably content under the wing of a viciously self-interested mime-lord called Jaxon, head of London's most successful syndicate of voyants, the Seven Seals.

Just as we are getting our heads round a galaxy of potentially interesting characters, Paige is trapped by Scion guards, killing two by invading their minds. After a hectic chase across the rooftops, she is captured and taken to Oxford, now a penal colony known as Sheol 1. At this point lots of new characters are introduced, everyone is given numbers instead of names, and it gets even more difficult to remember who is who, let alone their supernatural powers. Sheol I is surrounded by barbed wire and the flesh-eating Enim, and ruled by a dominatrix suzerain, Nashira Sargas. Paige is placed under the wing of her blood-consort Arcturus (think Mr Rochester on speed). Can she escape?

Shannon is great at gory fates for minor characters and tense chase scenes, but because she is setting the scene for six more books there is simply too much furniture in the hall. A cast of characters at the beginning would help, and that would be a better place for the glossary of invented terms. Fantasy fiction readers love intricate expositions of imaginary worlds, and many will lap up The Bone Season and its sequels. But I felt a hole at the core. Any series of substance needs characters, major and minor, that we care deeply about. Shannon's are made with her mind, rather than her heart.

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