Book review: The Song Rising, by Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon
Samantha Shannon
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Fantastical literature is a hydra-headed thing. There are some writers so intent on world-building they retreat to world-building. Tolkien is one (does anyone actually enjoy the pre-Human mythology of the Valar and Mekor in The Silmarillion, or terribly worry about what happened to the two blue wizards?) Another might be George RR Martin. I don’t really care about Asshai by the Shadow or the Zamoyos River in Sothoryos unless it will be important to the characters. I’d rather he wrote The Winds Of Winter and revealed whether they were. Samantha Shannon has taken a different route. Instead of endlessly drawing maps and genealogies, she made the wise decision to set her fantasy in a world we know well: this one.

This is the third volume in a prospected seven-book series. So here comes the catch-up. In The Bone Season, we met Paige Mahoney, a feisty, streetwise member of an occult, in both senses, gang, led by the charismatic Jaxon. Ever since something very bad happened in the late Victorian period – rumours around Jack the Ripper and royalty surround it – humans can be clairvoyant.

When the series starts, the government, referred to as “the citadel”, is authoritarian and dictatorial and impassively opposed to clairvoyance; hence the surreptitious nature of their activities. In The Bone Season, Paige leaves her life of crime, against her will, and is taken to a training camp in a city that was once known as Oxford, and is inducted into the deeper secret: the citadel is a pawn of very supernatural things called the Rephaim, who came through when the fissure split, and are the actual powers-that-be. In The Mime Order, Paige is back in London, and the novel features a gloriously baroque series of London lore – Green Men, Pearly Queens, Spring Heeled Jacks – who comprise the criminal underworld. Paige, intent on bringing down the hypocritical order, takes on a leadership role, but only through combat with her former mentor, Jaxon. She gets her wish, and now has an urban insurgency, and has exposed Jaxon as someone with, shall we say, a foot in both camps. But leadership proves more difficult in execution than acquisition in the latest volume.

The Rephaim-run but citadel-implemented government have developed new ways to track the clairvoyants: a bank ATM, even maybe a gun with special sights can unveil them. With her fledgling resistance already fractured and afraid, Paige takes it upon herself to track down the technological infrastructure. It takes her to Manchester first, and then, after revelations and a raid, to Edinburgh. Both cities are sketched deftly: given how many novels are set in Oxford, London and Edinburgh it is pleasing to see a different kind of Edinburgh, a place of motley buildings and industrial hubs, where Leith is intrinsic, not exotic.

She captures the city with a particular kind of precision, especially the relationship between power and strength, and those who benefit from neither.

Without giving away too much of the plot, things do not work out well.

There are scenes about torture and deprivation that make this series of books easily the most politically engaged of any of the contemporary dystopian fantasies. The sheer breaking of an individual, gradually and decisively, is done in a manner which is truly shocking: not least because the genre is one in which we are beguiled into supposing nothing truly bad will happen to our protagonist. You can’t imagine Lyra Belacqua in Guantanamo Bay; nor can one imagine Katniss Everdeen having to make stark political decisions and being more of a politician than a mere heroine.

The novel ends with another city as the destination – and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the series is moving outwith Britain. Ever since HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds there has been a slight aversion to looking at the global consequences of such dystopias – the recent sequel by Stephen Baxter, The Massacre Of Mankind, was at its best when looking at such worldwide phenomena, rather than just Woking getting incinerated – and Shannon seems to be taking that wider view.

One thing I found especially admirable in the previous books is the erotic relationship between Paige and Warden, once her Rephaite controller. It’s deepened here on a number of levels, and the yearning and impossibility – they are, after all, different species, or so we assume at this point – is done with an understated elegance. Given there is so much intrigue and escapade, character development and imagination here, my only cavil would be that the Emites – another supernatural set of beings brought into our world alongside the Rephaim, and supposedly their mortal foes – get scant development. But we have four books to go. I am more than willing to wait.

*Book review: The Song Rising, by Samantha Shannon, Bloomsbury, £12.99