"‘The Bone Season’ And The Intellectual Problem Of The Mary Sue"
Samantha Shannon signed a seven-book deal for the series that begins with The Bone Season, a fantasy novel that was described as a grown-up Harry Potter when it was published in August. That commitment may have been an unfortunate one, given the result, a drab combination of alien invasion and magic that’s simultaneously overwritten and underdeveloped. But for all that The Bone Season, which I looked forward to more than almost any other novel this year, is a grievous disappointment, it also presents an interesting opportunity. The Bone Season is an interesting entry in the category of literature that features so-called Mary Sues, or author or reader stand-ins, as main characters, and the intellectual and narrative challenges that result from their employment.
The Bone Season centers around Paige Mahoney, a young woman from Ireland who became a clairvoyant after a childhood experience with a poltergeist, and, because she lives in a society called Scion, where the supernatural is treated with suspicion, grows up to be a criminal who works for a Victorian-style street gang. Her primary motivation for accepting this line of employment is her loyalty to a doctor named Nick who discovered her abilities as a child and has helped teach her to manage them. Apparently voyants, as they’re called, are never inspired to do anything with their powers other than commit clever crimes, like persuading the spirits of dead painters to possess them and create new masterpieces for sale on the international market. But Paige’s life changes when she’s caught up in what she thinks is a Scion sweep, and after a period of torture, finds herself delivered to a community called Sheol I, ruled over by alien creatures called Rephaim who explain that they plan to take over Earth, in part to save it from mindless creatures called the Emim, who have a taste for human flesh.
All of this is explained via exposition, whether in dialogue or in Paige’s head. These blunt modes of explanation both make Shannon’s omissions more obvious, and mean that, absent actual human experiences that deliver information, there’s a curious lack of emotion attached to her concepts. We know because Paige tells us that there are different classes of voyant powers, and that voyants themselves feel differently about people with different abilities, but there’s no particular reason why that should be the case. It’s clear that most voyants are criminals, or have connections to criminal gangs, but it makes absolutely no sense that there isn’t an organized voyant political resistance, given what voyants can do–it’s as if Shannon stopped building her world and concepts once she got past her most exciting ideas. The Rephaim’s plan is to draw the Emim to isolated areas by concentrating voyants there, which makes some sense, given that their ability to do this is why human governments have ceded so much authority to them. But given that the Rephaim can be grievously harmed by Emim, it’s not clear that this is an idea worthy of a super-intelligent alien race. And given the abilities of the Rephaim and their interests in voyants, it’s not clear why they leave some voyants to fend for themselves in tent cities when they’d obviously be useful as bait.
But all of these are problems that could be addressed by expanding Shannon’s world in subsequent books. The far graver problem is with Paige herself, and how approaching this story through her exceedingly poorly-developed perspective affects our ability to explore it or to consider its conflicts. Janet Maslin, in her review of The Bone Season, suggested that “her main attribute is feistiness,” but even that seems to be stretching it. For much of the novel, Paige is grovelingly devoted to Jax, the mime-lord, or criminal mastermind, who runs the gang of which she’s a part, largely because he recognized her abilities and offered her work, even if he’s cruel and has put her in danger in stretching the limits of her abilities. Once she’s captured by the Rephaim, Paige’s feistiness mostly consists of anger at her particular captor, Arcturus, even though he’s generally decent to her. Eventually, and predictably, they fall for each other, even though neither one of them has a discernible personality. All of Paige’s relationships take place on the adolescent poles of slavish loyalty or reflexive resentment.
And because Paige’s emotional spectrum–and her person–are so limited, it means our experience of Scion and Sheol I are, too. Paige has a horrible encounter with an Emite, one of the brainless, slavering creatures that are drawn to voyants and consume human flesh. But it only really affects her relationship with Arcturus and her status in the colony. A more sophisticated character, face-to-face with a seemingly unstoppable threat, might consider whether human governments, particularly less technologically-sophisticated ones, struck the best deal they could with the Rephaim, even if it was an exceptionally ugly one. The only person who raises such a question is an entire flat character named Daniel, who helps Paige for reasons that are never explored, and has no characteristics beyond enigmaticness and his appearance in Paige’s field of vision. Similarly, upon learning that some Rephaim once sided with human beings in a rebellion, might be curious about their motivations, the structure of Rephaim society, and their grand strategy for conquering new worlds in the first place. Paige has some nascent thoughts about the political organization of the mime-lords, but it doesn’t occur to her to quit Jax until he wants to abandon less-valuable voyants during a rebellion in Sheol. Given everything she’s seen Jax do, that suggests either a terror of non-voyant society that Shannon never really fleshes out, or a hugely underdeveloped moral sensibility.
Whatever Shannon’s reasons for leaving these intellectually- and narratively-promising parts of her world in scaffolding and these questions under-explored, they render the book a wordy failure. But she does take time to walk us through Paige’s first bad sexual experience, and to have Paige ask Arcturus “’If voyant minds are like oil’— I weighed my words—’what are your minds like?’ For a moment, I wasn’t sure he was going to reply. Finally, in a thick, velvet undertone, he said one word. ‘Fire.”’ That single word sent a tremor through my skin. I thought of what oil and fire did together: exploded.” She recalls childhood teasing Paige experiences in school. The closest Shannon gets to giving Paige any sort of political awareness is a memory of losing her cousin in an anti-Scion riot–and she demotes that memory as less important than Paige’s first romantic disappointment.
This is the problem with making the inner life and romantic success of your character the paramount stakes in a novel. Done poorly, it doesn’t just shove more interesting questions to the side. It can trivialize them in ways that look callous and self-absorbed.
This doesn’t always have to happen. Suzanne Collins made Katniss Everdeen’s romantic and sexual life an element in the Hunger Games, the fights to the death that she participated in–faking a romance with her fellow contestant Peeta Mellark was one of the ways Katniss won fans and survived during her first games, and she was forced to keep up the pretense to hold onto a modicum of freedom in between the competitions. In The Bone Season, though, Paige and Arcturus have their first liaison in the middle of a rebellion they’re supposed to be organizing. Even if they each suspect it might be their only kiss, that Shannon has them linger feels more like fan service than sensible plotting, and serves to make both characters seem awfully foolish and self-centered.
Similarly, the plague of Chosen Ones that afflicts literature has a bad way of prioritizing the main character’s inner life over their engagement with the larger world. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, it turns out that the burden of chosenness that the title character has lived with is at minimum a matter of chance and choice, and quite possibly a mistake. What ultimately becomes most important isn’t that he’s special, but that he’s built relationships and developed sophisticated moral priorities that help him continue to make good decisions, even when they’re exceptionally difficult. Telling Harry he has a special destiny is a spur that helps him begin this journey, not the final determination of his fate. He earns both his reputation in the novel, and our loyalty as readers outside of it. Katniss Everdeen becomes the Girl On Fire through an act of impulse, and has to spend three more novels trying to survive the consequences of her decision to replace her sister in the Hunger Games.
But simply anointing a character as chosen or special or uniquely powerful has a tendency to close off these choices, and to narrow the world down to that one person. Because Paige is the only dreamwalker in the world, we know, before the first novel is over, that she will be critical to its conclusion. The female leader of the Rephaim covets her powers. Arcturus chooses her because he senses a specialness in her. She is the only character in Sheol I to contemplate a rebellion. Other characters, and other moral questions, matter only in so much as they help or hinder Paige, or in so much as they affect her decision-making.
I have no particular quibble with seeing yourself represented in film, movies, and television–it’s a a powerful thing, and an experience too many people are denied. But there’s something dispiriting about the idea of consuming fiction as a way to curl up inside your own head and to close yourself off to the outside world. If all fiction does is reaffirm to readers that they are already special and remarkable, and it’s on other people to recognize them and reward you, it’s a breeding ground more for yearning and resentment than for exploration and courage. If your characters are a little less powerful, a little more flawed, a little more specific, your readers may not be able to slip inside them with the same perfect ease that they inhabit Anastasia Steele, Isabella Swan, or Paige Mahoney. But in exchange, those characters may be able to take your readers farther into strange lands and big questions.