The bone ultimatum
In May 2013, The New York Times profiled a slew of 20-somethings who are on the brink of success or already successful. Rubbing shoulders with Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, and Alexander Wang, creative director of Balenciaga fashion house; was Samantha Shannon, a 21-year-old Oxford student. Shannon is the author of a seven-part literary fantasy series, The Bone Season, the first of which has just been published. The reason Shannon makes the list is that Bloomsbury, the British publishers of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, have given “Shannon a six-figure advance for the first three books, an unprecedented show of support for such an untested first-time author”.
The Bone Season revolves around Paige Mahoney, a 19-year-old who lives a double life in London because she’s clairvoyant. While her father thinks she works in an oxygen bar, she’s actually part of a syndicate that is full of people with psychic abilities, which is a crime under the Scion rule in London. Mahoney is a dream-walker, which means her spirit can go hurtling into the aether. Her life changes when she’s arrested and finds herself in an abandoned version of Oxford city where the Rephaim – cruel, infallible beings – dwell. Shades of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-Four emerge, as Mahoney discovers the truth behind the Rephaim regime.
The story isn’t very original, but what brings it to life is Shannon’s imagination – her inventiveness when it comes to the Rephaim-infested Oxford and the colourful details she weaves into her narrative. There’s also the good looking and mysterious Warden Arcturus, who happens to be Mahoney’s master. But the story falters towards the end. However, going by the vein of popular books today, The Bone Season is right on mark – dark, check; good-looking protagonists, check; magic and sci-fi, check. In an email interview with Time Out, Shannon talks about how her debut novel is “penny farthing futurism”.
Tell us about The Bone Season. I started writing The Bone Season when I was 19 years old, shortly after completing an internship at David Godwin Associates, a literary agency in Seven Dials, a small district in London. While I was there, I had a vivid image of a girl having the same day at work as me, but she happened to be clairvoyant – and The Bone Season was born. I sent the finished book to the same agency in April 2012 and it was bought by Bloomsbury a month later.
You’re a student at Oxford and have placed your university into a disturbing dystopian world. Tell us about it. The novel begins in 2059, 200 years after the day that triggered its events, but 1859 still shapes the world of Scion. The way I handle this in the book is through anachronism. You’ll see gramophones, Victorian clothes and herbal remedies in the same space as oxygen bars, data pads and advanced painkillers. I’ve tried to find a word that fits what I’m doing with the novel in this respect. One of the guys at Bloomsbury suggested “penny farthing futurism”, which I love. The idea of clairvoyant powers just came to me while I was working at Seven Dials.
On your blog, you mention that music is inherent to your writing process. How did you mix it into The Bone Season? I’m a big fan of old music, from the Victorian era onwards. I'd love to own an antique gramophone. The Bone Season is set in 2059, but shaped by events occurring in 1859. I try to bridge the two timelines through anachronism, and weaving in some tunes from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries helped me create an “old world” atmosphere.
Your story comes on the heels of a slew of books set in dystopian worlds. Yet, there’s a vein of disturbing reality to it – politics, inclusiveness. How difficult was it to write two worlds? It was surprisingly easy. Just as Paige operates on two levels – spirit world and physical world – I operate on “book level” and “reality level”. When I walk around London I see both my London and Paige’s. The two worlds overlap and blur together in my mind.
A seven-part series – how daunting is this, especially when everyone’s drawing parallels to Rowling? It's been overwhelming, to say the least. I’m a young, unknown author and there’s a lot of anticipation to live up to. Having said that, it’s been great to have so much early interest in The Bone Season.
I’m a huge fan of Harry Potter and devoured the books with every new release. I was born in 1991, so I’m very much part of the “Harry Potter generation” – those whose childhoods just wouldn’t have been the same without it. JK Rowling is a luminous storyteller. I love her sense of humour and the intricate wizarding world she built around Hogwarts.
I think all writers aspire to be like her, to capture readers like she does, but I didn’t think about Harry Potter when I wrote The Bone Season. The comparison just came from our similar deals: seven fantasy books with Bloomsbury.
The Bone Season, Bloomsbury, R499.
By Bijal Vachharajani on September 27 2013