A Tale of Three Cities
Samantha Shannon was born in west London in 1991. She started writing at the age of fifteen. Between 2010 and 2013 she studied English Language and Literature at St Anne's College, Oxford. In 2013 she published The Bone Season, the first in a seven book dystopian fantasy series. The Mime Order followed in 2015. Both were international bestsellers and have been translated into twenty-six languages. The film rights have been optioned by the Imaginarium Studios and 20th Century Fox. In 2014, Samantha Shannon was included in the Evening Standard's Power 1000 list. The Song Rising opens exactly where The Mime Order left off, and Paige Mahoney's task of stabilising the fractured underworld has never seemed so challenging... Below, exclusively for Foyles, Samantha describes how she set about re-inventing London, Manchester and Edinburgh as settings for the first three novels in her Bone Season series.
Author photo © Louise Haywood-Schiefer
In A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously described London as ‘that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’. While this image of the city is less than becoming, I’ve always liked the quote; it captures the spirit of London as an eternal draw for those who are ‘free as air’, whether to good or ill effect. If you seek purpose and structure in your life, you know where to seek it. It is in the labyrinth of London that you can find yourself.
When I was building the world for my Bone Season series, I always knew that London would take centre stage, and that even when it didn’t appear in one of the Bone Season books, you would feel its presence. Like nineteenth-century Britain, the Republic of Scion – the puppet government that acts as the main source of conflict of the series – is an imperialist power with one overarching aim: to set its bounds ever wider, and to grow ever stronger. All of its territories answer to the rule of London. Yet in the midst of the flag-waving and bloodshed that pervades this incarnation of the capital, its underworld provides a dubious sanctuary for the very people it has oppressed for two centuries. A resistance is in bloom on its streets, led by a motley army of outcasts and misfits – loyal to the idea of London – who yearn to protect its age-old status as a place for anyone. It is a melting pot of conflicting loyalties and deep contradictions.
Paige Mahoney, my Irish narrator, hails from a dairy-farming district in South Tipperary and was brought to London against her will when her father was conscripted by Scion. Her relationship with London is complex. Although she has every reason to despise it, it is also where she tastes power and acceptance for the first time as second-in-command to the mime-lord Jaxon Hall. As she grows into a leader of the revolution in The Song Rising, she comes to believe that she can one day liberate London from Scion and reclaim it for everyone.
A convincing and compelling setting is a vital ingredient in any good fantasy. In my books, one of my goals is to infuse my settings with character; to make them more than just background decoration. In the first instalment, I briefly introduced the reader to my tightly-controlled London before whisking them away to a crumbling Oxford, stripped of its grandeur and prestige, reduced to a squalid penal colony. It was in Oxford that Paige learned the truth about the government before returning to London in the sequel, The Mime Order, where the capital became the battlefield for a power struggle between Paige and her employer. Jaxon, who grew up as an urchin, is as complicated and brimful of secrets as his city. He warns Paige that if she turns against him, London itself will hold it against her.
I was born in Hammersmith and have lived in the suburbs of London all my life. The Mime Order was my love song to the city of my heart. In The Song Rising, however, I knew it was time to go farther afield and decide what other parts of Britain would look like in my version of the future. All too often, the international concept of Britishness is bound to London and the South East – when someone describes a British accent, for example, it’s likely that they’re referring to Received Pronunciation. In this book, I set out to fold a more far-reaching history of the British Isles into the cloth of the Bone Season series.
The Song Rising is set in three cities: London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Manchester is a place I’ve wanted to visit in my fiction for years. My father is from Lancashire, and although we never visited his hometown as a family, his northern heritage limned my childhood. I loved the words that only he used in our house: kecks, kip, daft ’apeth, clobber. It left me with an enduring fascination with that part of the country, and in The Song Rising, I finally had the chance to explore it.
Because the aesthetic of The Bone Season was inspired by the Victorian era – a member of the Bloomsbury team brilliantly dubbed it penny-farthing futurism – I decided to draw on Manchester’s history as the heart of Industrial Revolution to recreate it. The Manchester of The Song Rising is the engine of the empire, used by Scion to pump out guns and vehicles for its war machine. Its streets, befouled by smog, are rife with clairvoyant gangs called Scuttlers, who are modelled on the young criminals who called the nineteenth-century slums their home. Edinburgh, in the meantime, is capital of the Lowlands region, Scotland having been stripped of its name and cultural identity. Its clairvoyants dwell in the haunted South Bridge Vaults, where they whisper treason in Gàidhlig, a language long since been banned by Scion. The Scion Citadel of Edinburgh also hosts a top-secret military facility – just as in our world, Scotland is the reluctant host of Trident-armed submarines.
When I wrote about London, I was confident that I could convert it smoothly from the real to the slightly unreal. Manchester and Edinburgh were more challenging. I was conscious that, not having spent a significant amount of time in either, I would lack the local knowledge to make meaningful references or in-jokes. Paige also only visits them for a few chapters each during her journey; consequently, I had limited space to bring out the richness and detail of their streets. Fortunately, I had people from Manchester and Edinburgh who were willing to help me out with the fine details. I also made sure I could spend a few days in both cities. This isn’t always possible for authors – Google Maps is a godsend – but when presented with the opportunity, I took it. Walking through these two very different places, soaking up their atmosphere and sounds and smells, armed me with the practical experience I needed to write about Paige discovering them for the first time.
In the fourth Bone Season book, the story will leap even farther away from my comfort zone in London, into mainland Europe. I mean for it to go farther still. One of my aims with this series is to build a multi-faceted dystopia on a global level, and I will strive to capture each new setting with care and authenticity. Nonetheless, I have the feeling that no matter how far across the world I take Paige, London will always be calling to both of us.