Fantasy books are all about escapism, and in order to transport the reader away from reality the best examples have vibrant, fully-realised worlds with complex, exciting structures and systems (be they magic, technology, religion and so on). With her first novel The Bone Season, Samantha Shannon shows that she’s a natural world builder, weaving together past, present and future England to create a compelling mixture of epic fantasy and dystopian future. Here we have a world of the near future, at once frozen in Victorian times and developed past today’s technology, populated with poltergeists, angels and monsters. Part of the population are ‘clairvoyants’ with cleverly realised abilities that are beyond the ken of others, and thus are shunned and persecuted for being different. Their whole world is built around the control of this social underclass, through segregation, propaganda and fear.
It’s a vivid backdrop over which Shannon paints an exciting, fast-paced story that deals with themes of family, belonging, truth, honesty and self-belief. There is a wealth of detail in the settings, clearly drawn from the author’s love of a couple of notable English cities, and the whole concept of the clairvoyants, their powers and how everything links together is fantastically well realised. Story-wise it’s treading old ground but it’s doing so with style and a genuinely fresh aesthetic that sets it apart from its closest contemporaries. Many of the hallmarks of modern fantasy are present and correct – strong female lead, brooding anti-hero, a sense of isolation, emotional conflict, a genuine sense of danger – but everything combines to become a powerful, contemporary, relevant story and a great testament to the author’s skill.
It will come as no surprise to hear that not only are there a number of sequels planned, but the film rights are already taken with Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium studio already hard at work. The world of the Bone Season is so detailed and characterful though that for once the wealth of subsequent material is absolutely welcome. This should be the start of great things to come from Samantha Shannon.