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To steal perchance a dream

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A 21-year-old Oxford student, whose debut novel is a futuristic fantasy about a young clairvoyant in a dystopian world, is being touted as the next JK Rowling.

It's early days yet, but protagonist Paige Mahoney has the personality and pluck to fill the void left by Hogwarts wizard Harry Potter. Many fictional characters and their authors have tried - and failed - to scale those magical heights of success that Potter's creator JK Rowling still enjoys. Now, the publishing house Bloomsbury hopes to relive its success through Samantha Shannon's debut novel, The Bone Season. It's the first of a seven-book series that will be unleashed next month on an audience always eager for a new fantasy fix.

Drawing from the rich tapestry of London and Oxford, Shannon weaves a dystopian world set in 2059;a world where clairvoyants are guilty of simply existing. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney works in Scion London, the city's criminal underworld. She uses her powers as a dreamwalker to enter the spirit world and break into the minds of people to gather intelligence for her boss, mine-lord Jaxon Hall, who offers protection to talented 'voyants' in return for their services. But one rainy night when Paige is captured by the secret police, she is flung into a world of government conspiracies that goes back to 1859. Instead of being executed at the Tower, Paige is taken to a penal camp, Sheol I, which is run by an alien race called the Rephaim. We learn that the prison city is Oxford, a place whose very existence was disavowed by the government so that the Rephaim could make it their home and harvest voyants for their powers.

Unlike the first two Harry Potter books that had an Enid Blytonesque quality to them with their boarding-school backdrop, The Bone Season vibrates with darkness from the word go. "Yes, it's going to be a dark series, but perhaps not as brutal as George Martin's Game of Thrones, " says Shannon, who graduated from St Anne's College, Oxford, just a few weeks ago.

The 21-year-old author's life makes for a compelling story. It has all the elements of a coming-of-age novel: a teenager's desire to write;the rejection of a sci-fi novel she wrote while still at school;the courage to try again. Shanon got the inspiration to write a story around clairvoyants during an internship with the literary agent David Godwin. His offices are located at Seven Dials, a junction in the Convent Garden district, where seven streets converge.

Gentrification has altered Seven Dials, and today it's quite different from the poor and gritty landscape captured by Charles Dickens in Sketches by Boz. (Agatha Christie fans may recall The Seven Dials Mystery. ) During her lunch break, Shannon roamed the streets, catching glimpses of shops selling crystal balls. Seven Dials was the seed for The Bone Season, a place where the worlds of spirits, clairvoyants and underworld lords brush against each other;the place, she says, is "where it all began".

Paige Mahoney was born during Shannon's second year at Oxford. Like the protagonist, Shannon was 19 at the time. "I'm nothing like Paige, but I live vicariously through her, " she has said. "She is hot headed, and has a life I'd like to lead. But Paige is not as independent as she'd like to think. " The three dominant characters in the voyant's life are all male. The good Dr Nicklas Nygard was the first to recognise her talents. Mine-lord Jax, who can switch from vicious ruthlessness to easy charm, has a strong hold on her. And finally, there's her captor and keeper, the Rehpaite Arcturus, whom she calls Warden even in their most intimate moments. "Warden is his title. Her use of the name is symbolic. "

Shannon says that writing such an ambitious book was not an isolating experience. "I tried to control myself. I didn't want to flunk college because of my writing. The liberating thing about writing a sci-fi fantasy is that you can break the rules. "
She gives full reign to her imagination, and this is reflected in her description of the Rephaim, physically perfect creatures that looked like humans before the Fall in Genesis. "The Rephaim are a race that feature in the Hebrew Bible, and their basic description inspired me to create a brand-new supernatural creature, " Shannon writes in a blog post. They are giants of the world. The Hebrew Bible also describes them as shades or spirits, inhabitants of the netherworld.

In The Bone Season, they reside in Oxford, a mysterious and beautiful place that defies the ravages of time. "As students, we called it the Oxford Bubble. There was a sense of claustrophobia that contributed to this feeling. " Shannon draws on this sense of time standing still and carves a space between the action-packed pages to dwell on this. The gramophone is a recurring motif that evokes an anachronistic Victorian atmosphere. Often, the reader catches Warden listening to old music on the gramophone. "It was deliberate. The year 1859 is ever present, and has a bearing on the events in 2059. I indulged a bit by putting in my favourite songs. " When Warden questions Paige, you can hear Frank Sinatra's 'I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance (With You)'. In one scene, she wakes up to the soft strains of 'It's a Sin to Tell a Lie' by The Inkspots.

When they read the manuscript, Bloomsbury offered Shannon a six-figure advance and the publicity machinery was set in motion. There's already a film in the pipeline. Perhaps comparisons with Rowling are not so farfetched. Shannon is uncomfortable with the comparison. "I really admire her, JK Rowling. I grew up on her books. I want to be known as Samantha Shannon."

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