“Might as well die with caffeine in my veins”: Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season Saga

“Might as well die with caffeine in my veins”: Samantha Shannon’s Bone Season Saga

The Bone Season saga is a bewitchingly idiosyncratic steampunk-sci-fi-fantasy hybrid by London’s own Samantha Shannon.

After binging all three books currently out in the world, my imagination is reeling. The brain really does feel warm after finishing, like the body after a sumptuous roast… gravy-drenched Yorkshire puddings, turkey slices dipped in cranberry sauce, steaming brussels sprouts, peas and potatoes, buttered runner beans, carrots, cauliflower, a glass of Merlot…

What follows shall be my thoughts on the whole series, my favourite scenes, quotes, and characters, a couple of predictions, and my dream casting for a TV adaptation.

This symphonic story revolves around rebel clairvoyant Paige Mahoney and the sprawling authoritarian empire of Scion. Beating at its heart is the broiling behemoth of London. It is gorgeously imagined in this world as a bloated paradoxical organism clothed in the tailcoats and top hats of the Victorians but lit by the neon lights and dystopian devices of its oppressor. The fountains of Trafalgar Square are equipped with garish green and red alarm lights while imperious statues of every one of the city’s dictators since 1902 stand between Nelson’s lions. An image to make the skin crawl.

This empire was founded to stem the plague of psychic powers supposedly unleashed by Edward VII. Anyone afflicted with the “unnatural” connection to the spirit-strewn aether was mercilessly hunted down by the burgeoning state. The voyant underworld grew as a result, a safe haven of organised criminal gangs.

Our protagonist Paige works for one such group, the Seven Seals, and we first encounter her hooking herself up to a machine, Matrix-style, to enter the dream world where she can walk the city sensing lost spirits. Her mercurial mime-lord Jaxon Hall capitalises on the creations of harnessed spirits like Donne and Claesz to sell fake works of art on the black market, though he has made most of his money through the publication of a pamphlet classifying clairvoyance into seven controversial orders (shout-out to the fact that the female counterpart of mime-lord is mime-queen, also there are waitrons instead of waitresses or waiters).

The opening chapters of The Bone Season read like an anecdotal diary as we are immersed in Paige’s reality, with a swathe of information to digest and bags of proper nouns to remember, but the action kicks off when Paige is forced to kill a guard who jumps her on the tube. She renders another one insane, while a voyant bystander is killed by the guard’s poltergeists. Paige makes it back to her flat on the Barbican estate then phones Jaxon. We briefly meet her father, learning that they fled from a massacre in Ireland ten years ago, and that he is ashamed of her but doesn’t know about her criminal existence. He is also the type of person who calls waterboarding therapy not torture, an aside that will accumulate devastating resonance by book 3. But she is woken by the sudden presence of guards and flees across the rooftops until she is accosted by soldiers in unknown uniforms.

Cue a nightmarish ordeal at the hands of the empire as she is carted off to the Tower of London, tortured, then transferred to a secret facility hidden in Sheol I née Oxford. It is here that we learn that the aether is not just a harbour for lost human souls, but a conduit to spiritual realms teeming with all kinds of monsters. It turns out that the human connection to the aether was ripped open in 1859 when the world had produced too many spirits from too many bodies, a rupture that also reaped the monsters from the Netherworld.

Enter the Rephaim, she said in parentheses, the Nephilim-like immortals who established Scion and began enslaving voyants into a penal battalion to attract the parasitic Emim terrorising the Rephaim’s home dimension like moths to the flame of Oxford. Displaced from their realm, these towering metal-skinned fallen angels now intend to take control of Earth. While they spread the façade of Scion across the globe, each decade a contingent of voyants are abducted to Sheol I, the harvest known as the Bone Season. Honestly though, I don’t know what this says about Oxford that one of its students envisioned it as a bleak penal colony brutally ruled by dictator gods.

The internal politics within the hierarchical families of the Rephaim rage through all three books as Paige grows closer and closer to her captor-cum-ally Arcturus Warden of the Mesarthim. He gives me real Akkarin vibes (see The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan) and I really didn’t feel good about him at all until the last few chapters of book 1. He’s not typical soulmate material but rather a doomed tortured revolutionary, ancient and strange, indurated by time, wreathed in silence and scars *cue that song by Pop Evil*. Ok, typical material. Actually, come to think of it, given Charlie B is in the literal epigraph, Warden basically is Rochester. But I was fully on board in that heated moment beneath the stage, and how perfect to have You Know Who just being there.

“This place has afflicted me with a terrible wanderlust. I long for your fire, for the sights that you have seen. Yet here I am, two hundred years after I arrived. Still a prisoner, though I masquerade as a king.”

And I love all those Donne influences. All that death and decay. I feel ‘The Relic’ could work nicely as a Paige/Warden poem… “A bracelet of bright hair about the bone, / Will he not let’us alone”… If you do get the new editions, you’ll also find the prequel novella The Pale Dreamer in the back of The Bone Season, the story of Paige’s first proper outing with the Seven Seals as they pursue the vengeful spirit of the Constance Kent-esque Anne Naylor. The essence of Victorian London is vividly spliced onto this futuristic dystopian skeleton through the frozen fashion and the ancient poltergeists that prowl its shadows. We also get more of an insight into the slippery Jaxon Hall. I despise him, but I’m slightly obsessed with him.

“He crushed his cigar against the ashtray. ‘We are clairvoyants. Unnaturals. Did you think we were going to be like Daddy, sitting in our little Barbican offices from nine to five, sipping tea from our little Styrofoam cups?’ All of a sudden he looked disgusted, like he couldn’t abide how amaurotic people could be. ‘Some of us don’t want Styrofoam, Paige. Some of us want silver and satin and sordid streets and spirits.’”

Book 2 dives into the consequences of Paige’s escape from Sheol I, as Scion searches for the fugitives and the syndicate sees its tyrannical Underlord Haymarket Hector brutally murdered. The Mime Order climaxes in stunning effect with the scrimmage to crown the new monarch of the underworld in a spiritual battle that evokes the epic elemental tournament in VE Schwab’s Gathering of Shadows.

The Song Rising, the third instalment in this singular saga, came out earlier this year and picks up with London’s new Underqueen as she contends with the launch of Scion’s long-dreaded clairvoyance-sensor. The quest to locate and destroy its elusive core takes her from the factories of Manchester to the dungeons of Edinburgh. Shout-out to featuring both Irish Gaelic AND Scottish Gaelic on the same damn page. I was pining for Princes Street. Alba gu bráth.

The first third of the novel reads like chunks of A Dance of Dragons, when Jon Snow followed in his father’s (well, uncle’s!) footsteps and relentlessly pursued virtue and honour as the world fell apart around him, while the second third chronicles the explorations of other British cities, and the final third sees Paige’s dramatic and drastic attempt to dupe the enemy. My favourite thing about the books, however, remains the characterisation of London. For a monstrous dystopia it really does read like the most lavish love letter to the ’ol smoke.

“In theory, London was everything I hated: huge and grey and stern, raining nine days out of ten. It roared and pumped and pounded like a human heart. But after two years of training with Nick, learning how to navigate the rooftops, the citadel had become my haven. I could fly through traffic and over the heads of the NVD. I could race like blood through the mesh of streets and alleys. I was full to the brim, bursting with life. Out here, if nowhere else, I was free.”

Paige by @LesyaBlackBird

I’m right with you there, Paige. Somewhere that shouldn’t feel like home but does because for the first time you’re madly intoxicatingly free? “Oh, my citadel,” as she muses at one point. It really does make you or break you.

Another delicious sinew of this saga is in the furious and flawed strength of the women. Samantha Shannon’s women are always complex queens, from the literal mime-queens of London’s voyant syndicate to Scion’s prisoners, like Liss in the first book, revived for a time by Warden in a ritual that bonds her with new Thoth-themed tarot cards by merging his blood with hers, like Aphrodite over Adonis’ body. This became necessary to save her life after her previous deck of cards was burned in a scene that I refuse to believe is not a direct allusion to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall when Huntingdon burns Helen’s paintbrushes (and/or to Gotham’s similar act of violence in Barbie Rapunzel). Because it fits beautifully and I love it. And did I immediately ship Liss and Paige when they first met? Yes, yes I did. Though in fairness I also continue to ship Paige with Dani, Eliza, and Maria. Speaking of Maria, that reveal about her past was something else. Truly symphonic stuff.

Other things I love

  • Some voyants worship the zeitgeist as a deity.
  • Gathering spirits around you to use as a weapon against someone else’s dreamscape is described as a “spool”.
  • How the twisted toxic Jaxon Hall gave a “dial” to each of his protégées.
  • Warden’s gramophone plays ethereal jazz records from the golden age.
  • There’s a black market in fantastical literature published in penny dreadfuls. Given my postcode is SE11 I’d like to henceforth claim The Vamps of Vauxhall for the inhabitants of my flat.
  • The threnody is the recitation spoken to quell spirits, a gorgeous word I hadn’t heard before from Greek threnoidia or “wailing song”.
  • “We unhorse the Reaper”, a rallying line from Jaxon’s notorious pamphlet.
  • The Abbess’ tailored velvet suit (evoking the green get-up Cate Blanchett slays in Ocean’s 8).
  • Hot chocolate that tastes of conquest.
  • That Bone Season XVIII twist.
  • Every description of the London skyline.
  • “What kept you going?” “Rage. Rage is the fuel.”
  • Edinburgh’s voyant network is in the vaults.
  • Paige’s humour is getting drier and drier. “Bloody shitting fuck.”
  • Alsafi’s communiques in the language of flowers.
  • The boy with his mouth sewn shut who wove a secret Irish anthem into his melancholy piano composition metres from Nashira so that Paige could hear it and know the moth still flies beyond her cell.
Paige by @LesyaBlackBird

If I put my editor hat on, the only thing I would change about the series would be shortening the first two books and shifting the gears from 1st person to a multi-POV 3rd person. It would be so compelling to hear from the likes of Maria, Jaxon, Dani, Warden, Zeke, Scarlett Burnish, Catrin, and even Nashira, to name just a few heads I want to climb inside, and then we could follow events in the Scion heartland while Paige is in Paris. I would also have kept the classy historical fantasy vibe of the old covers, and named the third instalment The Black Moth, so that all the titles retained their noun formula… although apparently she did want it to feature the word “moth” but this was deemed unattractive by Bloomsbury, and in fairness “rising” a lá the Easter Rising would still work. Having said all that, I still adore the series and it’s only getting better and better with each instalment.

Favourite scene from each book

  • The Bone Season – The revelatory encounter with Nick upon the rooftops, her mortified flight, and then the horrific club scene. I ached for her. It was also a poignant detail to have Nick pointing out the star Arcturus and musing how he’d never seen it so bright. Scenes like these felt like they came first-hand from somewhere, for instance how the thought of the cruel comments and jeering judgemental eyes from school corridors became her fuel to do spirit battle.
  • The Mime Order – There was so much fun dystopian London stuff, but my pick for book 2 would have to be the scrimmage and the build-up to that reveal about the identity of the human traitor who sold out the Ranthen.
  • The Song Rising – Though I loved the sequence in Manchester that saw the fearsome Catrin Attard slaughtering Price like a pig, and the staged riot around the Scott monument in Edinburgh, my favourite scene was undoubtedly the ballet and the domino events it triggered. I was literally quite by chance sitting opposite Parliament when I read that last sequence and was thrilled to find ‘No Time for Caution’ as the track that lines up with it on The Song Rising’s Spotify playlist. There could not be a more accurate rendition of the feelings while reading those pages. I mean… an iridescent blade like a shard of opal! And then that revelation about the identity of a certain Scion super-spy!

Predictions

  • Book 4 will revolve around the attempt to thwart Sheol II while we learn more about the international organisation that sent Paige to Paris.
  • The Rag and Bone Man and his unreadable aura is some kind of special voyant we haven’t come across yet or a hybrid Rephaim thing.
  • By the end of book 7 Jaxon will have a convoluted eleventh hour redemption akin to Holland in Shades of Magic.
  • We haven’t seen the last of Catrin Attard – Paige’s interference in Manchester is a poignant allegory for the damage inflicted by Britain on countless governments across the globe, and given she directly catalysed the displacement of the city’s voyant queen by her far more militant sister, she’s inextricably linked with whatever chaos arises as a result.

As for my aura, there can be no doubt that I would be manifested in the world of Scion as a Fury, most likely an Unreadable… the opposite of calm, an opaque spirit haze caught between orange and red that chimes on a minor chord, a shattered dreamscape remade with unbreakable spiritual armour that sends invading minds ricocheting back at their bodies like water off marble, a warrior of ghosts singing with the voices of the dead. Sounds about right. My dreamscape itself would be a mist-wreathed castle on an island in the centre of a sprawling Scottish loch beneath a perpetual thunderstorm, set with an ancient library filled with candles, sculptures of the Dodekatheon, an Underwood typewriter on a Dickens desk, a roaring fire, a Chesterfield armchair, and a gramophone blasting Mahler’s 9th.

Now, we know Andy Serkis and Imaginarium Studios have the film rights but obviously we may still never see it on screen. The ideal adaptation for me would be a dark gritty HBO series with a Victorian-steampunk-meets-The-Matrix vibe and a sinister score by someone like Tokio Myers that marries classical orchestra to R&B. Let’s roll with this recipe…

My Dream Cast

The Seven Seals

  • Paige – Saoirse Ronan – the obvious choice, of course, but she could be the big-name star to get the ball rolling and can finally be Irish in something, unlike the unfortunate accent she dons in a certain upcoming biopic, a role which they should have been begging Karen Gillan to do.
  • Jaxon – Matt Smith – back in his Who-era waistcoat but with darkened hair, fully channelling the roguish depths he mines in The Crown.
  • Eliza – Nathalie Emmanuel – she would kill as the Martyred Muse, a regal, tortured Hufflepuff, and she’d have epic chemistry with Saoirse.
  • Nick – Josh Dylan – am I right or am I right?
  • Danica – Brianna Hildebrand – a red-haired Negasonic Teenage Warhead as the sociopathic waistcoat-wearing engineer… yep, ’twould be as epic as it sounds.
  • Zeke – Anthony Ramos – because he’s gentle and beautiful and he can sing.
  • Nadine – Emeraude Toubia – no-brainer, I wouldn’t say no to just copying that sibling relationship altogether, though an alternate Nadine could be Ana Villafañe.

The Rephaim

  • Warden – Jan Uddin – the lead rebel Rephaite is a tough one given how tall and beautiful he is but I think the appropriately Adonic Jan Uddin fits the bill.
  • Nashira – Shohreh Aghdashloo – ever since I first saw her in The Lake House I’ve always thought she would slay as an immortal demon hellbent on world domination.
  • Terebell – Salma Hayek – basically as Elena in Savages, the queen who commands fear like the Reaper.
  • Alsafi – Jason Mamoa – long flowing hair, austere robes, piercing eyes, wielding an iridescent blade like a shard of opal…

The syndicate and other rebels

  • Hector – Gary Oldman – I think he could nail a gross, menacing Bill Sykes type.
  • Ognena Maria – Nicole Maines – only a superhero could capture Maria’s strength, grace, and general badassery.
  • The Abbess – Thandie Newton – just picture her as the notorious mime queen in her tailored velvet suit and top hat, have you fainted yet?
  • Cutmouth – Hera Hilmar – the mysterious scarred mollisher with a long braid of red hair.
  • Ivy – Evanna Lynch – ethereal and vulnerable.
  • Roisin – Rachel Tucker – the longest-running Elphaba of all time and general Northern Irish badass.
  • Catrin Attard – Mandip Gill – she would be such a cool Mancunian rebel.

Scion

  • Scarlett Burnish – Karen Gillan – red eyeliner, six-seater lips (whatever they are, I still don’t know), flaming hair.
  • Frank Weaver – Kenneth Branagh – Lockhart would certainly excel at playing the powerless puppet.
  • Vance – Cate Blanchett – with a silver helm of hair, because I want to see her in all things.

Sheol I

  • Liss – Kate Bracken – the Scottish gal with the short hair in Being Human.
  • Julian – Jacob Anderson – his song Stronger Than Ever is the perfect anthem for survival in Sheol I.

If only it were so. May the wait for the fourth instalment begin…

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