The Short Version: Paige Mahoney is an outlaw, living in a mid-21st Century London far different from what we could imagine. Clairvoyants of all kinds – from simple ‘whisperers’, capable of impossibly beautiful music, to ‘dreamwalkers’ like Paige, capable of leaving their own mind to walk in another’s – are not only real but prosecuted by the laws of Scion. When Paige is arrested and taken to Oxford – a prison camp, she thinks – she discovers that there’s quite a bit more to the realities of Scion and to her abilities as well.
The Review: First, a quick note to publishers everywhere: stop touting your new authors as the “next J.K. Rowling” or a series as the “next Harry Potter” or even the next “Hunger Games”. I know this is a technique as old as time (“Sophocles! The next Aeschylus!”) but seriously, it does nothing but set up impossible expectations. The magic of the Harry Potter books was that, when they started, they were just… just another book series. My friends and I read the first book as middle schoolers and told everyone we knew but we did that organically.
I realize that the parallels are tempting here. Samantha Shannon is a young woman with clearly impressive imagination and a lot of raw talent – and she’s promised seven books in an ambitious series outlay, with an England very different from ours. But you do her no favors by pitching this book on anything other than its own merits.
I know it’s a lost cause, but it at least felt good to say.
So, now to the book. Let’s begin with the good news: this book is the ambitious debut of a 21-year-old (MY GOD, being about to turn 25 has never felt so washed up) with a lot of imagination and talent and that alone is enough to hope that this book does boffo business. We need more young people who are willing to just put their imagination on the page – and more editors, publishers, etc who are willing to take chances and support them. I hope I can find an editor/publisher half as supportive if/when the time comes. Because this is a really tough sell, when you think about it. That summary that I did up there barely scratches the surface of what’s going on in this book – and that’s not even to mention an ending that basically says “okay, reset for book two.”
Let me briefly digress and say that the ending – no spoilers here, this is just purely editorial in nature – features some of the most eye-rolling dialogue this side of Children of Paranoia. Is there anything more frustrating, reader, then a book ending (even if it’s a ‘cliffhanger’) with a line like “Now I only had to trust in myself.”?
Hang on – I’m hijacking this digression into the main thread, actually: because it’s not just the ending. Some of the writing here is just… it’s rough. It’s not, like, Stephanie Meyer or Fifty Shades bad – but it’s clunky, it’s derivative, it’s enough to make you sigh… but then, reader, it just takes flight. There are gorgeous passages here too – and it almost makes the dodgy plot points and overused clichés palatable. Because you just have to step back, as the prose soars over Oxford, and think “Wow – this is impressive for an established author, let alone for one still at uni.”
What makes the book truly interesting and exceptional is the world Shannon has created here. It’s overwhelming, there’s no other way to put it – so it depends on how interested you are in investing in a really, really complex new world. It’s sort of the question you have to ask yourself before you dive into a Major Fantasy Series like A Song of Ice & Fire or something – but, I suppose, it does make sense for a series like this or even for the Potter & Hunger Games series. The thing here is that this is far more layered than either of those far-more-accessible series. And Shannon doesn’t do herself or the reader any favors by (again, no spoilers) at the end of the book basically saying “we’ve only scratched the surface, get ready.” But I found it fascinating, gripping, even welcoming. I’d rather an author get ambitious about the level of imagination they demand of me than to deal with another so-so, half-hearted attempt to really engage me. After all, aren’t these characters all supposed to be tapping into extra-sensory parts of their brains? So why shouldn’t the reader?
Seeing as the book comes out in less than a month and hype is, right now, meant to be building, I won’t detail much of the plot beyond saying that this first book is a mish-mash of stories you’ve heard before, but put in different / new circumstances. There were points in this book where I, as a reader, felt like I was getting my chain yanked – things that felt too belabored (like Paige’s stubbornness on, like, everything) and then also things that just felt way too obvious and telegraphed (readers will know exactly what I mean). And there are a lot of questions you’ll have – about the Rephs, about voyants, about Scion, about why Edward VII suddenly might have been a candidate for the Ripper murders – and very few of them get answered. But man, there are some great set pieces – a chase across London roofs and alleys, a couple big ol’ throwdowns, and some truly innovative descriptions of the places we can go to inside of our heads. On the one hand, I don’t see how this plot sustains to 7 books – but Shannon also dispatches with enough plot here to have conceivably filled two whole books. Basically, the possibilities might just be endless. So if you find your head spinning – or if you find that there seems to’ve been an awkward jump in space-time without any indication – it’s all part of the ride. Just close your eyes and the feeling will pass.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I’m almost interested in coming back to this book and this review after it has been out for some time to expand on my thoughts, go into detail on what I thought worked and didn’t work and why. There is a lot of good here, raw though it might be – but there’s also a lot of stuff that puts me on the fence. This wasn’t an outright grabber like the books it’s being compared to – but I think that, with time and experience, Samantha Shannon could grow into an author with the imaginative cache of the mainstream greats. I hope this book is a success purely because I genuinely want her to succeed – and because I get the sense that there are better things to come in this series. Prove me right, Ms. Shannon.