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A Haunting, Victorian-Inflected Dystopia In 'The Mime Order'

The Bone Season, the first in Samantha Shannon's intoxicating urban-fantasy series set in 2059 in Scion (a dystopian version of England), ended with young Paige Mahoney escaping from a penal colony in the secret city of Oxford. Her Rephaim masters — immortals who feed upon the auras and blood of human clairvoyants like her — were in hot pursuit.

The Mime Order opens with Paige on a train back to the Scion citadel of London, wounded and bleeding after leading her uprising. Within hours, she is the most hunted outlaw "voyant" in the land, her face flashed on massive screens in Orwellian fashion. If caught by the Vigiles — clairvoyants used by the State to track their own — she will be imprisoned in the Tower of London, then executed.

Shannon circles back in Chapter 2 for a brief recap of The Bone Season, the first in a projected seven-book series. In that first book, Paige had been imprisoned by the Rephaim during the "bone season," a once-a-decade harvest of the most promising voyants. Shannon includes maps, lists of the mime-lords (underworld crime bosses) and their cohorts, and a glossary to help new readers get up to speed. (The slang used by clairvoyants is loosely based on words used in the criminal underworld of 19th-century London.) But mostly she moves us ever forward, propelled by her courageous and compassionate narrator.

The Irish-born Paige, known as the Pale Dreamer, is a dreamwalker, a rare voyant who can project her spirit and control another's body: "Imagine your spirit is a boomerang. A light throw and a quick return." It's a talent that is essential to her survival in the gladiatorial battles of The Mime Order.

For protection, Paige is forced back into service to Jaxon Hall, mime lord of the Seven Seals gang. He welcomes her back as his mollisher or heir, with promises she will take his place in a few years. But he refuses to join in her fight against the Rephaim, whom, she has discovered, created a puppet government in London almost 200 years before she was born. Paige knows that the Rephaim leader Nashira Sargas has plans to re-create their penal colony in London. Jaxon is focused on his own greed; Paige will not abandon her revolt.

In The Bone Season, Paige was Jaxon's chief underling and a slave to her powerful Rephaim ally Warden, but in The Mime Order she comes into her own. She forges alliances, fends off poltergeists and monstrous Buzzers, rescues Warden from a secret dungeon in Camden, and risks her life to travel to London's most notorious slum to find out who assassinated a rival and his gang. She engages in combat with the toughest of the mime lords and mollishers. Even Jaxon.

Shannon's haunting dystopian universe is rich in detail, consistent, suffused with familiar afternotes. Just when the bloodshed seems over the top, she turns to shimmering descriptions of Paige's dangerously illicit tie to Warden. When Paige seems toughest, Shannon reminds us of her empathy for the downtrodden. "Hope is the lifeblood of revolution," Shannon writes. "Without it, we are nothing but ash, waiting for the wind to take us." Like Paige Mahoney, Shannon now has proven staying power. Her fans will be calling for more.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fire and California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.com among others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.