Review: Samantha Shannon

Last Thursday, Oxford welcomed back one of its own. In the sunlit Sheldonian, publishing wunderkind Samantha Shannon took the stage in conversation with Andy Serkis and his Imaginarium Studios co-founder Jonathan Cavendish to discuss her highly anticipated second novel, The Mime Order, and what lies ahead for the recently-optioned Bone Season film.

The Mime Order is the eagerly-awaited sequel to The Bone Season, a bestselling debut written while Shannon was an undergraduate at St. Anne’s. Her entrance to the publishing world garnered incredible attention when, at 21, she signed a 6-figure deal with Bloomsbury, publisher of Harry Potter. Set in 2059, The Bone Season describes an alternate England, where a new regime in 1859 led to a unique fusion of futuristic technology with Victorianism. Add one plucky heroine, Paige Mahoney, an otherworldly race called the Rephaim, and an underground syndicate of clairvoyant criminals (“voyants”) and a phenomenon is born. Shannon’s book deal covers a seven-part series, and as she discussed on Thursday, she already has the end in sight. She doesn’t claim to have planned every last detail – “the fun of writing a book is in seeing where it goes,” she says – but her confidence leaves one with the distinct impression that this popular series is in capable hands.

In person, Shannon demonstrates her talent for worldbuilding in her quick, thoughtful answers. It’s clear that she knows her creation inside and out, from its international politics to its cinema culture. Her enthusiasm for literary homage is also evident- she mentions Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as her two primary inspirations, along with references to everything from the Brontës to Old and Middle English dream poetry. She’s also incredibly willing to discuss her creative process. Now that the second book is published, she’s made substantial progress with the third, and is also tinkering with bits of the fourth as well.

Shannon’s vision, Cavendish says, is what drew Imaginarium Studios’ interest. The independent studio, founded by veterans Cavendish and Serkis (known for his roles in The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and the recent Planet of the Apes franchise), acquired the rights to The Bone Season in 2012, beating bids from Hollywood studios eager to nab the next dystopian blockbuster. A draft of the script has already been completed by a notable screenwriter (who, according to Cavendish, cannot yet be named) and has Shannon’s full approval. Once the draft is perfected, Serkis and Cavendish anticipate beginning production at the end of 2016. The duo especially looks forward to crafting the visuals. They also considered potential casting: Shannon hopes for Benedict Cumberbatch to play her favorite character, Jaxon Hall (a grown-up Artful Dodger type, leading Paige’s small but powerful gang of voyants), but remains unsure whom she would want for the leading role.

The ease with which Shannon goes from discussing the novel to the movie only confirms the clarity of her plan for this saga. And she is dedicated – like her co-panelists, she went above and beyond to give this talk, flying in from South America. Shannon temporarily checked herself out of the hospital, and gave the entire talk with the IV bandage still on her hand. She may assert that she’s not much like her strong, tough creation, but there’s more of Shannon in Paige than she lets on. With this much dedication and this much vision, Samantha Shannon is definitely an author to keep an eye on.