I am so excited, you guys! I’ve been trying to get her on the blog for a while now, and she is finally here! Today, Samantha Shannon talks about world-building and her process for The Bone Season.
I was really interested in hearing her thoughts on this topic because I thought the world-building in her book was epic and well-planned and totally blew me away. There is still a lot to learn, as it cannot all be revealed in the first book, but I look forward to more intricacies and details as the series unfolds.
But anyway, she’s here to chat about all sorts of things world-building, and then that is followed by two giveaways. One is for a hardcover of the book provided by me, and the other is an Audible.com VIP code for a copy of The Bone Season and another audiobook of your choice provided by the author!
I wasn’t going to originally do a giveaway, but I do want to share this book with those who have not had a chance to read it yet. It’s definitely worth your time, though I know it is not a book for everyone.
Hello! I’m Samantha Shannon. Kara very kindly invited me to Great Imaginations to talk about the worldbuilding in my first novel, The Bone Season. (I met Kara at BEA and if you haven’t met her in person, I’d like to take the opportunity to say that she’s lovely.)
Building the world of The Bone Season – a futuristic world in which clairvoyants are persecuted by a puppet government called Scion, who are in turn controlled by supernatural creatures known as Rephaim – was by far the most enjoyable part of the writing process, but also the most challenging. Conveying a complex, multi-layered world to a reader was no easy feat, and from the reviews I’ve read, my worldbuilding technique seems to have been the single most polemical aspect of the book. I’ve seen reviews saying that they loved it, others saying they hated it – it was too confusing, there was too much information, there was too little information. I quote a neat summary of the negatives from one publication: ‘Reviews in the Examiner and USA Today criticized The Bone Season for dumping too many facts on the reader and deploying so many confusing names.’
Literature is subjective; each person will take something different from each book. I had to accept that when I was putting the first chapter together. I had to accept that this opening, however it panned out, would work for some people and not for others. It might even put some readers off reading the whole book. I also had to remind myself that although I knew the world like the back of my hand, and understood how all its elements fit together, my readers would be new to the world and would have no idea what was happening. This meant I had to make some tough choices about how to handle Chapter 1.
First, I made the key decision to make Paige – my narrator – fully aware of the clairvoyant world at the beginning of the book. She doesn’t go through the same arc of self-discovery that many protagonists do, when they realise they’re ‘different’ or ‘special’ in some way. Paige knows she’s different from the beginning: she’s clairvoyant, she’s a criminal, she’s unnatural. She knows all about the clairvoyant gang syndicate, all about auras and dreamscapes and the æther, and she knows the basics of her own gift, dreamwalking. She knows about the dystopian government, Scion. What she doesn’t know about is the Rephaim and their realm. The reader learns with her once she reaches the prison city of Sheol I – but in the first few chapters, I had to explain at least a little of the history of Scion, and how the effects of that history are playing out in the year 2059. You have to know Paige’s world before I can turn it upside-down.
Chapter 1 is slightly more barefaced than the rest of the book. Paige takes you out of the action to talk at you about the world. She addresses the reader directly, saying things like ‘Let me clarify’ and ‘Trust me’. Breaking down the fourth wall was the only justifiable way I could introduce paragraphs of information about Scion London, a high-security citadel which is only briefly explored in the first book. I was aware that I was turning my back on the age-old saying ‘Show, don’t tell’, but I reasoned that it was better for the reader to have too much information than too little. ‘Show, don’t tell’ just wasn’t working out. Early drafts of The Bone Season had a little less information crammed into Chapter 1, but when reading those drafts, both my editor and a small group of early readers felt uncertain about the foundations of the world. You might be overwhelmed by the time you reach Chapter 2, but you’ll also be armed with a good understanding of Paige’s life. You’ll be ready for the new challenges posed by the Rephaim, who come with their own catalogue of rules.
One of the key links in the book – the relationship between dreamscapes, auras and the æther – isn’t explained until Chapter 13, when Paige has a ‘flashback’ to meeting her boss for the first time. My editor and I tried moving this scene to an earlier point, but it refused to work anywhere else; it seemed unnatural and forced in every place but Chapter 13. So the reader is expected to trust that there is a link, and that it will be revealed and clarified in due course. Trust is something Paige seeks throughout the story, but it’s also inherent between author and reader.
I know Kara wanted me to talk about the setting of The Bone Season, and I’ve now gone off on a tangent about trust and stuff, so I’ll just, er, get this back on track. The Bone Season takes place in two cities, both based on real locations: London and Oxford. London becomes the Scion Citadel of London, where futuristic technology mingles with vestiges of the Victorian era, while Oxford becomes the crumbling prison city of Sheol I. The word She’ol (שְׁאוֹל) is Hebrew, meaning ‘hell’ or ‘pit’, and I tried to recreate the city with this in mind. I could have chosen to write in an entirely imaginary world – and there is one fictional place mentioned in the book, called Netherworld, where the Rephaim come from – but instead I decided to layer most of it over our world, in the style of urban fantasy. Apart from Netherworld, all of the locations mentioned in the book are real. Of course, I took some liberties with them; Oxford isn’t really a penal colony (unless you count being trapped in a library for weeks), and the London in the book is shaped by an alternate history of England. The denizens wear Victorian-style clothes and are hit by a constant barrage of anti-clairvoyant propaganda. It is London, but it isn’t.
Major landmarks appear in both cities. In London, you’ll recognise Trafalgar Square, Seven Dials, Big Ben and the Barbican, among others. I call these ‘points of reference’. They help ground the fantasy in reality, which is vital when you’re writing dystopia. At its heart, a dystopian story has to feel plausible enough to stir fear in the reader. Despite the fantastical elements – the clairvoyants, the Rephaim, the spirits – they still have to sympathise with Paige’s terror and anger. If there are no points of reference, no links to the real world, it’s much harder to establish that connection.
To summarise, I hope that if you do read The Bone Season, you’ll feel that it repays you for your commitment by presenting you with a fully realised world and relatable characters. But if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s okay as well. Thank you for having me!