Women in SFF Author Spotlight – Samantha Shannon (THE MASK IS FALLING)
Samantha Shannon studied English Language and Literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. The Bone Season, the first in a seven-book series, was a New York Times bestseller and the inaugural Today Book Club selection.
Her next novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree, was published in February 2019 and became a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller. Her work has been translated into twenty-six languages. She lives in London.
Hi Samantha, welcome to the Hive! It’s so good to have you here!
Lovely to be here.
Congratulations on the release of your fourth book in The Bone Season series! How does it feel to have The Mask Falling out there in the wild? Can you tell us a little of what readers can expect?
Surreal. At several points I really thought this book would never come out. There were such long waits for every milestone: the title reveal, the cover reveal, publication day. But I’m proud and relieved that it’s finally on bookshelves. It’s my favourite in the series so far, and the strongest, in my view – taking a break to write The Priory of the Orange Tree really helped me improve my craft.
The Mask Falling is the instalment that I hope will show readers why The Bone Season is a seven-book series. It follows clairvoyant Paige and her friend and immortal bodyguard, Warden – the series’ protagonists – as they try to escalate the revolution by navigating the criminal underworld and political circles of the Scion Citadel of Paris, all while figuring out what they mean to each other, and while Paige is trying to recover from the events of the first three books. For the first time since The Bone Season, she and Warden are living in close quarters and working as a team. Their relationship is my favourite part of the series, and its backbone, so this one was such a joy to write.
Congratulations on the TV deal! Were you expecting such a success with this series?
Thanks – it’s great to have Lunar Park on board. Harriet Hammond (the producer) and I get on very well and have a similar vision for the series. My agent had several film offers on The Bone Season, but I’m determined that if this series is adapted, it will be for TV, not the big screen. It just wouldn’t work as a film series. I try to keep my feet on the ground when it comes to adaptations, as there are so many hurdles to getting a project green-lit – the series was with the Imaginarium Studios and 20th Century Fox for several years and nothing ended up getting to the finish line. But it was still a great experience, and a privilege to have been able to work alongside brilliant creatives like Andy Serkis.
Did you encounter any difficulties when writing this instalment? Was it easy to pick up the character’s arcs and fall back into this world?
It was easy. I’ve spent so long in Paige’s head – it will be a decade this summer, in fact – that slipping back into her skin is effortless. At this point I know her voice and personality as well as my own.
The main difficulty was trying to get the book out in good time. I genuinely didn’t realise how long The Priory of the Orange Tree would take to edit and publish, and it ended up causing this four-year gap between instalments, which wasn’t ideal for a long series like this. I lost countless nights of sleep and cried myself to exhaustion several times, thinking I’d destroyed the book’s chances and everyone was going to abandon it out of impatience. When it did come out, it was right into the middle of the strictest London lockdown in months, when all the bookshops were closed (as they still are). I was genuinely speechless when it became a Sunday Times bestseller – I had abandoned any hope of that happening.
It sounds like it’s been a very difficult time for you, we’re so sorry to hear you went through that.
The cover is absolutely gorgeous by the way. How much input did you have in its design and what was your reaction when you saw the final copy?
Yes, it is beautiful. The designer is David Mann, Art Director at Bloomsbury, who is the mastermind behind all of my covers (in partnership with illustrator Ivan Belikov, in the case of The Priory of the Orange Tree). David and I always have a chat about my ideas for the cover before he gets started. For The Mask Falling, I requested that the cover evoked a stained-glass window, since a key scene in the book takes place in the Sainte-Chapelle, my favourite place in the world. The design took my breath away – it really does look like a rose window. The bright yellow was a surprise, though – for some reason I’d got it into my head that it was going to be green. But I love it.
Where do you fall on the intense-planning / organic-plot-development scale?
Somewhere in the middle, although I lean more towards planner than pantser. I always plot my books by writing a detailed synopsis, but I allow myself to stray from the plan if it feels like the right thing to do. I know my destination, but if I have to take a different route to get there, so be it.
What initially sparked your inspiration to use clairvoyance as a magical ability in The Bone Season?
When I came up with the idea for the series, I was doing an internship in London, specifically in a small retail district called Seven Dials in Covent Garden. A few shops in the area do psychic readings and sell tarot cards, crystal balls, aura beads, that sort of thing, and it occurred to me that I’d never heard of a book that used clairvoyance and divination as a magic system. I thought it would be an interesting way to write about what is, essentially, a retro-futuristic witch hunt.
Why did you choose Paris as the setting for The Mask Falling?
Because I love Paris, in short. I also knew it well enough to transform it for the series, and it really fits the Republic of Scion aesthetic, with the ancient rubbing shoulders with the modern, the glamour with the grunge. I was particularly drawn to the carrières (quarries) beneath Paris, which are more commonly known as its catacombs – the tunnels left behind by limestone mining, some of which are flooded, and some of which are littered with skeletons. Those struck me as the perfect place for a clairvoyant underworld.
You take inspiration from the legend of St George and the dragon for Priory; are there any historical female figures whose stories you would love to tell?
Lots, yes, but none I want to mention in case I jinx it . . .
We are finally seeing a surge of stronger representation of women in fantasy, in how women are portrayed. Are there any further steps you’d like to see taken?
I’d really like people to stop banging on about ‘historical accuracy’ every time they see a woman use a sword. You see the same thing in gaming, and it’s tiresome. I do think it’s a small minority of men who complain about women stepping into traditionally masculine (or even just active) roles, but they’re loud and aggressive.
Which diverse books would you recommend?
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir, A River of Royal Blood by Amanda Joy, The Deathless Girls by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin, The Girl King by Mimi Yu, Queen of Coin and Whispers by Helen Corcoran, Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho.
Which authors have influenced you the most? Who was your favourite childhood author?
Some of my favourite childhood authors were Cornelia Funke, Jacqueline Wilson, Malorie Blackman and Garth Nix. In terms of influence, I’d say Margaret Atwood, N. K. Jemisin, J. R. R. Tolkien, Anthony Burgess and Laini Taylor have all inspired me in various ways.
What do you most love to do, other than writing?
Swimming, gaming, improving my etymological knowledge. I would like to try (again) to learn to draw this year.
Lastly, and of course we save the most important question for last! What is your favourite fantastical creature? Which would you ride into battle on? Ok, I’m guessing you’ll choose a dragon!