In February 2012, Samantha Shannon, then a 20-year-old undergraduate student at Oxford University, went to one of her professors with the proverbial first draft. The manuscript she had been developing by night was dystopian high fantasy, at a Tolkien-like scale, complete with clairvoyants, crime syndicates, underground societies run by god-like beings and a magical war spanning realms and generations.
Her professor, who happened to be Ali Smith (the celebrated author of The Accidental and How to be Both, among many books, often thought of as Scotland’s Nobel Laureate-in-waiting), loved the book and recommended she sent it to her own agent, David Godwin. The Bone Season was eventually picked up Bloomsbury, which gave her a six-figure deal and the promise to publish the first three books of the series.
Nine years later, Shannon has published the fourth book in The Bone Season series: The Mask Falling, and it’s her best work yet—thoroughly satisfying at the plot level and a fascinating, relentlessly empathetic portrayal of trauma and recovery. The first-person narration of Shannon’s heroine Paige Mahoney (a “dreamwalker”, who has the ability to enter and shape the dreamscapes of others, even other clairvoyants) has never been stronger, even as we follow her during a period of great vulnerability.
At the end of the last book, we saw Mahoney being tortured ruthlessly before she escapes—and, as The Mask Falling reveals, seeks the refuge at the Domino Programme, an enigmatic organisation which seems to have big plans involving her. The action shifts to France here; Paige hopes to unite the English and French wings of the resistance against Scion or and their otherworldly masters, the Rephaim. In The Bone Season novels, the Republic of England, which outlawed "unnaturalness" (clairvoyance) towards the end of the 19th century, is renamed "Scion" three decades later and controls several major world cities by the late 21st century, where the first book starts.
The recent memories of torture aside, Paige is also struggling with her growing reputation as the Black Moth, the dreamer who became the Underqueen of London’s clairvoyants after defeating Jaxon Hall, her erstwhile “mime-lord”. The first half of The Mask Falling, therefore, has a lot of interior dialogue about Paige going through PTSD-like symptoms and the drudgery of the recovery process.
During an email interview, Shannon spoke about the challenges of balancing plot progression with the necessity of depicting trauma. “With genres like action and dystopia, there’s an unspoken pressure on writers to steamroll ahead for the sake of a fast-paced plot, which can mean that injury and trauma are minimised in favour of relentless action,” Shannon says. “But I knew that if I didn’t pay attention to Paige’s PTSD, it would do an enormous disservice to those who experience it in real life. I didn’t want to give the impression that you can always just pull your socks up and carry on like nothing’s wrong after a traumatic event. From personal experience, I know that isn’t true.”
One of the tricky parts of trauma-recovery is you may find yourself changing your personality in significant ways—so much so that a little bit of dissociation might actually help in some cases. Paige and her Black Moth persona have a similar equation brewing in The Mask Falling. She finds herself falling back upon the all-powerful Black Moth whenever she feels like she isn’t making sense of her grief, her pain. According to Shannon, Paige is stuck in a bit of an impossible situation with her alter ego.
“She is afraid of Black Moth, to an extent—afraid of what she might be capable of while wearing the mask, afraid Black Moth will devour her entire self if she can’t have a safe place to be something other than the ruthless, composed, mythic figurehead she feels the revolution is forcing her to become. But she also feels she might need the identity to cope.”
There’s also the bittersweet prospect of Paige giving herself over to the Black Moth entirely. “In the last third of the book, she meets another character who has already spent many years as a revolutionary, who has had his own mask surgically fixed to his face so he can never remove it, and she finds that possibility both frightening and tempting,” Shannon says.
The Bone Season series is at its strongest when it focuses on the plight of the clairvoyants (referred to simply as “voyants”). Hunted down, persecuted for simply being who they are in Scion London, these gifted individuals struggle to make sense of the hatred directed against them. At the allegorical level, it is a wonderfully malleable narrative foundation, and it allows Shannon to invest in her characters’ hopes and fears in an unhurried fashion. As motivations and allegiances shift with every book in the series, the voyants learn how to control their strengths and weaknesses accordingly.
Fantasy fans are familiar with the linguistic delights of their beloved genre: Star Trek fans are often quite capable of holding entire conversations in Klingon while Game of Thrones fan forums still witness debates about the finer points of high Valyrian, the language of dragon-lore. In The Mask Falling, Shannon invents “Scion French”, a gender-neutral variant of the language (in the book, it is the 2060s after all).
In Scion French, a person picks their own noun depending upon their self-perceived gender identity, especially when the makeup of their larger group is unknown. Paige defaults to ‘les anormales’ (feminine), while Le Latronpuche (a French voyant, a ‘binder’ who can attach a spirit to a location using his own blood) uses ‘les anormaux’ (masculine). There are other clever fusions: because both ‘Madame’ and ‘Mademoiselle’ depend on what they convey about a woman’s age and/or marital status, Shannon uses “Madelle”, a portmanteau honorific that was once proposed for usage in Quebec.
“I’ve been fascinated by language and etymology for years, particularly how we use them in secondary books, and how language can uphold outdated ideals, even when society is starting to move past them,” Shannon says. “I also studied a Romance language at school for eight years, so I was already conscious of some of their gender-based constraints—they lack pronoun options for non-binary people, for example (although there are ongoing attempts to introduce them). When I set the book in Paris, I knew I was going to have to make some tweaks to French. Although the Republic of Scion is tyrannical, it isn’t sexist, so it made no sense that certain sexist rules of French would still apply.”
With so many of the world’s best and brightest novelists across genre turning their attention to TV and the streaming world (Michael Chabon, Eleanor Catton, Brit Bennett), has she considered making the shift?
“The problem with screenwriting, for me, is that I don’t have sufficient experience and knowledge to grasp what makes a good or bad script,” Shannon says. “I’m the same with poetry–I know when I’m reading a good poem, but I can’t put my finger on why it’s effective. I think I’ll be sticking to novels for a while, but I may try adapting The Priory of the Orange Tree at some point.”
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.