Fresh from penning one of 2019’s most audacious, imaginative, and well-realised fantasy epics (here’s looking at you The Priory of the Orange Tree), Samantha Shannon is back with the latest instalment in her hugely-popular The Bone Season series, which follows a determined, clairvoyant heroine in a dystopian world ruled by factions of psychics in a shady criminal underworld and a totalitarian regime that seeks to stamp these groups out to ‘protect’ the general populace.
The Mask Falling picks up in the raw aftermath of previous instalment The Song Rising – dream-traversing lead Paige Mahoney is traumatised and healing from her torture at the hands of her enemies. She’s no longer the intimidating Underqueen, nor the awe-inducing Black Moth – instead she’s a woman thought lost and dead to the world, forced to watch as countries fall under the wake of Scion, the terrifying global power that seeks to dominate and control, dropping bombs on innocent civilian populations even as it offers peace. The metaphor for war and past atrocities is non-too-subtle, but then it isn’t required to be, not in a compulsive page-turner where Paige plays politics with resistance efforts and battles her own inner demons and trauma alongside fighting to stay alive and out of the hands of a coterie of villains and turncoats, all with their own agendas.
READ MORE: Staged (Series 2) – TV Review
Without spoiling the sprawling plot, Shannon ensures that this latest chapter of the series never skimps on story nor suspense, ensuring that her hero is engaging in all kinds of spycraft and warfare alike, including scenes of deception, espionage, and a key rescue sequence that could have come straight from a grizzled war novel. More than that, there’s a great emphasis on exploring Paige’s recovery from the events of books previous, forcing her into uncomfortable situations and harsh moments that show how far she’s come from being a captive in London and how far she still has the capacity to grow, as well as making sure her family history in Ireland isn’t forgotten nor glossed over (without spoiling anything – again! – there’s a very pleasing reason behind the golden-hues and hexagonal honeycomb design of the book’s cover art within the book). Like Shannon’s previous works, a comprehensive character guide (‘People of Interest’) included in the back proves to be an invaluable tool for anyone coming back to the series after a while, so readers needn’t worry about feeling adrift in the expansive world of a dystopian 2060.
READ MORE: Black Sun (Rebecca Roanhorse) – Book Review
Paige’s not alone in these pleasing character arcs, however – her growing friendship and relationship with Warden (or Arcturus as he’s now referred to) is a key beat throughout, and seeing the pair grow closer together is pleasing on a number of levels. Even better is Shannon’s skill at long-term planning, ensuring that key questions from previous novels are paid off here, and new questions and beats help shape the story yet to come; it’s always a joy to see characters return, sometimes in new forms and roles, and long-time fans of The Bone Season novels will enjoy some familiar faces who decide to visit the City of Light, either voluntarily or in chains.
However, despite all this solid plotting, the biggest draw for Shannon’s writing remains her impressive hand at world-building and it’s pleasing to see this continue here, as Paige and her allies explore the new world of a futuristic, dystopian Paris under the thumb of Scion. The worlds created feel so lived-in and real, almost a hop and a skip away from our own reality, that it’s easy to become absorbed into the global battle for control and freedom, with histories on a personal level that feel gritty and well-trodden, worn in by the years of oppression and subjugation by Scion and their immortal overlords. Equally admirable is Shannon’s clear love of language that is infused throughout the work – a character makes a key mistake when translating from English into French, book sections are named after characters from Greek mythology (with their etymologies broken down), and dishes are cheekily translated into ‘cemetery casserole’ and ‘tart of darkness’.
In short, The Mask Falling is a fantastic next chapter of Shannon’s Bone Season series and one that, upon turning that final page, looks set to be a keystone of what story Shannon still plans to tell. Unafraid to show the real stakes of war, The Mask Falling is both quiet and bombastic in equal measure, tearing through Parisian streets and reflecting on the tender pain of grief and loss.
Underneath its more fantastical elements of dream-walking and psychic abilities, The Mask Falling is about failure and loss and pain, about falling down again and again in your quest for rebellion, for freedom, and for justice – but it’s also about standing up afterwards and being unafraid to keep fighting. I for one, can’t wait to see what the Underqueen herself does next.