When I was growing up in the late ’90s in Bangalore on a steady diet of idlis and fantasy fiction, all the heroes in the books were boys or men. The women were relegated to love interests, sidekicks, or the strong mother who fights for her children. My librarian claimed these books were for boys and by boys.
Now, over two decades later, girls and women are the subject of hundreds of fantasy books, and easily accessible to any teen. And yet, several “die-hard fantasy fans” still claim that women can neither master this genre nor make good protagonists. Samantha Shannon has proven them wrong since 2013 with The Bone Season series – most recently, with the fourth instalment, The Mask Falling.
The story so far
The Bone Season is a seven-book dystopian supernatural fantasy series set in an alternate London in 2059. It’s about clairvoyants – people who can see (or sense) and influence spirits – and the discrimination they face. These “unnaturals” are considered criminals because of their psychic gifts, and are either publicly lynched by the government or secretly imprisoned for the rest of their lives, simply for being themselves.
The novels are about Scion, a corrupt government remote-controlled by the Rephaim, god-like beings from another world, and the extent to which they all go to hide the rot behind the system. It is about prejudice and survival in this London, where monarchy, fantastical literature, music, caffeine and alcohol are all outlawed and perceived as the harbingers of unnaturalness and deviance.
They focus on Paige Mahoney, who is committing high treason just by breathing, and the immortal Warden aka Arcturus Mesarthim, who is a traitor just for touching a human, and their star-crossed, slow-burn love.
In the first book, Paige is kidnapped from London and taken to a penal colony, ruled by the Rephaim. Shannon uses this novel to set up her world and focusses on Paige’s life in the criminal syndicate of London before she was kidnapped, and her imprisonment and eventual escape. Paige frees herself and other prisoners with the help of a group of rebel Rephaim and gets mixed up in their politics. Arcturus, one of the rebels, is Paige’s warden at the penal colony, and slowly turns into an ally and a friend.
The Mime Order, the second book, takes off on the very night of Paige’s escape to London. We see how useful and how useless it was. We also see the beginnings of a revolution (what is dystopian fiction without revolution?) and Paige climbs the ranks of her crime syndicate to become the Underqueen.
In The Song Rising, Scion and its puppet masters have begun to hunt down Paige and her kind. Racing against time, they fight back to destroy Scion. For the first time, we meet clairvoyants in cities outside London.
Enter the mask
The Mask Falling takes the action to Paris and its beautiful streets and underground quarries. Paige and the Warden leave London with the help of the Domino Program, a mysterious free-world espionage organisation that aims to stop Scion from expanding its reach. At the beginning of book 4, the Republic of Scion controls six countries.
Paige becomes sassier, makes new alliances and thwarts Scion’s plans yet again. But amid all that action, there’s time for Paige to just breathe (or at least try to), drink some (too much) coffee, and tease Warden.
Paige has severe PTSD and a lung infection after being tortured and water-boarded at the end of book 3. Shannon does not rush the recovery, and instead gives her the time and space to face her trauma.
A major portion of this book revolves around domestic Paige and Warden. As Paige is healing, Warden takes care of her with a tender intimacy and learns about the best parts of the human world – sarcasm and cooking. We see the emotionally closed-off Warden become Arcturus – a kind, compassionate, empowering, and surprisingly witty, Rephaite. Both of them find a home in each other, and their slow-burn love story moves a few steps forward (and several steps behind).
Shannon takes extra care to bring Paige and Warden on equal footing in this novel, both romantically and otherwise. While Warden is the immortal and Paige is the puny, easily hurt human, the hero here is clearly Paige. There are no ego clashes, and the Warden is mostly there to provide support and be her shadow.
These instances, and her description of menstruation, often made me go: “Ah of course! This was written by a woman.”
“’I suppose it’s like having all my lower organs crammed right down to my pelvis, then soaked in boiling water, so they’re sore and swollen. It’s a heavy, aching...downward-ness. But then it also feels like I’ve been kicked in the back. And the stomach. And the legs. Oh, and I’ve got a splitting headache.’
‘And you feel able to train,’ he said, after a long pause. ‘While experiencing those sensations.’
I rubbed the corner of my eye. ‘I’m grand.’”
The ambiguous universe
Shannon describes The Mask Falling as the heart of the series, and you can see that as it’s the funniest and warmest book so far. Impressive world building, witty writing and diverse characters elevate the novel.
By the end of The Mask Falling, we have characters who are demisexual, pansexual, bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans, asexual and non-binary. Most of it isn’t clear initially and it only comes up when the story demands it. The characters’ queerness is neither a means to fill up a checklist nor an afterthought.
While Shannon’s world is tyrannical, it isn’t homophobic or misogynistic. She uses language to drive home this point. Scion French does not follow the rules of real-world French. She says: “Since the Republic of Scion is not a patriarchy, and since I disagree with [French linguist] Nicolas Beauzée’s assertion that the masculine should prevail over the feminine (in any context, linguistic or otherwise), I decided that feminine and masculine group nouns would be interchangeable in Scion French, leaning towards a rule of majority.”
Women in the Republic of Scion France are addressed “Madelle” instead of “Mademoiselle” or “Madame” given their “deep-rooted associations with a woman’s age and marital status in the real world”.
This novel gave me emotional whiplash – there was joy, sorrow, betrayal, death, action, and a lot of trauma. It ends on a terrible cliffhanger, reminding me why I generally do not torture myself with on-going series. Here’s hoping the wait for book 5 is shorter. Till then, there is a Discord server to help me theorise and speculate.
The Mask Falling, Samantha Shannon, Bloomsbury.