Unlocking the hidden meanings in 'The Bone Season'

'The Bone Season'
By Jennifer Vineyard

As we get closer to the TODAY Book Club’s first Google Hangout with author Samantha Shannon on Sept. 16, her debut novel, “The Bone Season” continues to make an impact, with the book ranking at No. 7 on the New York Times’ Best-seller list in the Hardcover Fiction category. As fascination builds around Shannon’s dystopian fantasy, we decided to delve deep into the hidden meanings of Shannon’s tale. Here’s what we uncovered.

Just as you didn't need to know Elvish to enjoy "The Lord of the Rings," you don't have to speak Glossolalia or Nadsat to crack the code of Samantha Shannon's "The Bone Season." But if you find yourself flipping to the glossary in the back and still frustrated with the confusing vernacular in this much buzzed-about book, put your frustrations aside — we're here to help. Glossolalia, by the way, is the language used by creatures called the Rephaim in "The Bone Season," but Biblical scholars might also recognize it as the universal language of pre-Babel times, also referred to as the language of angels. It's one of many linguistic clues in "The Bone Season" to what's actually going on.

Excerpt: Clairvoyant fights the government in 'The Bone Season'

Shannon draws upon three areas for most of the unfamiliar terms in "The Bone Season" — Biblical cosmology, psychic phenomena, and Victorian street slang. Her heroine, Paige Mahoney, is a clairvoyant in a world where being "voyant" is criminalized, and after she commits a psychic assault and kills someone (by accident), she is taken to a penal colony called Sheol I. She'ol just so happens to be the Hebrew word for hell or the Netherworld or the Underworld (later called Hades when it was translated into the Greek), and it's no coincidence that when Paige tells one of her jailers to "go to hell," he retorts, "I already exist on a level of hell." The inhabitants of She'ol as described in the Old Testament, as it turns out, are the branch of the Nephilim called the Rephaim, which might explain why Shannon calls the creatures who jail the clairvoyants by the same name (and it might be a clue as to where they really come from). The Rephaim were also a race of giants (remember David and Goliath?), and Shannon describes the Rephaim as being giant-like with glowing eyes, eyes so expressionless they might as well be dead; her heroine calls one of them "the single most beautiful and terrible thing I've ever laid eyes on." All of the seemingly immortal Rephaim in "The Bone Season" are named after stars, especially the ones named in the Bible, such as Arcturus — so a little astronomy doesn't hurt to sort them out.

Hear an excerpt from the audiobook of Samantha Shannon's 'The Bone Season'

Just as the Rephaim seem to be derived from the Bible, so do their enemies in "The Bone Season" — the Emim, whose name in Hebrew means "horrors" or "the terrible." The Ammonites called them "Zamzummin," which translates into "Buzzers," or "the people whose speech sounds like buzzing." And boy, do Shannon's Emim buzz. When Paige encounters one, she says, "It carried a sound of its own. A buzzing. Flies." So far in the series, no connection is made how the Rephaim and Emim are different branches of the Nephilim. (Fantasy fan alert — the Nephilim who appear in "The Mortal Instruments" are half-human, half-angel hybrids, who fight demons).

But those are just the terms for the creatures introduced in "The Bone Season." What of the language Shannon uses to express the supernatural powers of the clairvoyants, or voyants, in her tale? One of the characters, Jaxon Hall, has written a pamphlet classifying every major voyant type called On the Merits of Unnaturalness, and their connection to the spirit world or the astral plane, referred to here as the æther. A cartomancer is a kind of fortune teller similar to a Tarot card reader, and is in the category of seers and soothsayers, since they all require a ritual object. If that object is made of organic matter, then it's the next category up on the scale: augurs (such as a chiromancer, who can read palms, or a tasseographer, who can read tea leaves). A medium requires no object, just the ability to be possessed by spirits. A sensor can tell more about what is happening in the spirit world by using one of the five senses — sniffers can smell spiritual activity, (similar to the movie "Push") and whisperers can hear the voices and vibrations of spirits, even use them to play music.

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Compared to these kinds of voyance, Jaxon Hall argued in his pamphlet, the final three types were "vastly superior": guardians, furies, and jumpers. A guardian has a higher degree of control and is able to summon, exorcise, or bind spirits, even control the dead. A fury becomes changed by the spiritual realm, and could be a sibyl, a beserker, or an unreadable (impenetrable by spirits). But the category that "The Bone Season" cares about the most is that last category, jumpers, which includes dreamwalkers, because that is where our heroine Paige falls. She's able to leave her own body and sense (or even touch) the minds of others — at the risk of her own body dying the longer she is away. It's a kind of astral projection, and in the world of "The Bone Season," Paige learns she can commit psychic attacks by breaking into someone's hadal zone, the deepest ring of their mind, making her someone you do not want to mess with. (This might have been what "Firefly"'s River Tam was talking about when she said, "Also? I can kill you with my brain.")

"The Bone Season" features a lot of other powers, but the main thing to know is that to survive, voyants band together in criminal gangs, lead by mime-lords (such as Jaxon Hall). And this is where Shannon uses 19th Century cockneyisms reminiscent of "A Clockwork Orange"'s Nadsat argot. A dollymop, or a dolly, is a young woman. A nose is a spy. A flam is a lie. Push is money. To slate is to beat up. To nib is arrest. Most of the terms become understandable in context — if someone is holding a gun but calling it an iron, for instance. And half the fun of "The Bone Season" is figuring out just what the heck these people are saying. Once you do, you'd be what Paige calls cokum.