Samantha Shannon On the Unexpectedly Timely Themes of A Day of Fallen Night and How History Often Alters Women’s Stories

Books Features Samantha Shannon
Samantha Shannon On the Unexpectedly Timely Themes of A Day of Fallen Night and How History Often Alters Women’s Stories

Samantha Shannon’s Roots of Chaos series is the epitome of everything that’s right about the fantasy genre right now: A rich, sprawling, female-focused tale that spans centuries and kingdoms, these are doorstopper old-school fantasy epics that are tremendously easy to get lost in. Beautifully written and meticulously plotted, both The Priory of the Orange Tree and its prequel, A Day of Fallen Night ground sweeping, potentially apocalyptic events in emotional, deeply human stories of connection, love, and family.

A story of dragons and queens, warrior mages, and religious scholars literally spread across the four corners of the world, both books essentially focus on the age-old conflict between humankind and the monstrous servants of a great wyrm known as the Nameless One who sleeps at the center of the earth. The various legends surrounding his creation, eventual defeat, and subjugation all vary depending on the culture of the historians telling the story, but one thing is clear: The threat is ever present, and vigilance is required. (Though what those protective measures should be will also depend on who you ask.)

The history of the Nameless One and the various figures connected to his initial rise and defeat is but one example of Shannon’s rich, detailed worldbuilding throughout this series, which fuses half a dozen seemingly disparate kingdoms and central characters into a cohesive whole, grounding them in centuries of the sort of history and myth that feel as though they belong in a college-level antiquities class. 

“I’m going to completely horrify you by saying that I just have a really good memory,’ author Samantha Shannon laughs when asked how she keeps the specifics of her sprawling universe straight. “But in terms of worldbuilding—and I do this with my Bone Season series as well—the way I build worlds is essentially by asking myself questions and forcing myself to come up with the answers. It might be like, don’t know, says that you have a very cold country—how do people keep warm? Or vice versa for a hot country, how do they keep cool? If it’s a desert country, how are they getting water? I just keep asking myself questions and the more I come up with answers, hopefully, each one of those answers is like a little stitch in a tapestry, giving the world depth and texture. “

 A Day of Fallen Night is technically a prequel to The Priory of the Orange Tree. Set centuries before the events of that novel during a tragic period known as the Grief of Ages, when deadly wyrms rise from the earth, leaving destruction and a deadly plague in their wake, its characters have long since passed into the realm of legend by the time Priory takes place. But for its author, setting A Day of Fallen Night in a time period so far removed from the events of the series’ first novel was strangely freeing. 

“I think the temptation when you write a prequel, and I think Star Wars was guilty of this a little bit, is that you want the characters to be ready to be moved into their positions for the sequel as quickly as possible and so that’s how we end up with Ben Kenobi kind of sitting around in the Tatooine desert for presumably quite a long time,” she says. “But I didn’t really feel as much of a need to rush all of the characters into position for The Priory of the Orange Tree. I might have felt like that if the book was set, I don’t know, say a year or five years before, I would’ve felt more pressure to make the world by the end of this story, look like it does in Priory. But because it’s such a long time, I just had to get the world to a place where I felt comfortable.” 

To be fair, Fallen Night does contain plenty of moments that will resonate with those that have read Priory and which will one day help create and inform the world of that novel.

“I do try to make connections with Priory—for example, you see the establishment of the Red Damsels in this book, you see the end of the Seiikinese monarchy when it’s replaced with the warlords,” Shannon explains. “But I didn’t feel the pressure to make it exactly the same, because 500 years is an immensely long time. And it felt like there was still so much more room for the world to develop and also just to recover from the Grief of Ages because it was such a cataclysmic event that it would take quite a long time for the world to get back to how it looks in Priory.”

Unexpectedly, perhaps, Shannon’s complex fantasy series takes the bulk of its inspiration from a famous real-world myth. 

“In terms of actually coming up with the concept of this world, it stemmed from the fact that  I love dragons,” Shannon says. “​​That started when I was really young because I watched this movie called Dragonheart that barely anyone has ever heard of. And then also I was raised in the Church of England, where the story of St. George and the Dragon came up quite a lot. He’s the patron saint of England and also this sort of military Christian saint, and  I was really interested in that legend and where it came from.”

Her research led her through many versions of St. George’s story, which is a basic sort of damsel in distress tale, in which a handsome knight rescues a beautiful princess from a monster. But, Shannon says she was particularly interested in one version of the story which contained, as she puts it, “conditional heroism,” In which St. George promises to save the land being tormented by the dragon but only if its residents convert to Christianity.

“What if they hadn’t converted, would he have just ridden off?” she asks. “And then I read another version which was from the Elizabethan era, which was pretty nightmarish and very, very problematic and ugly in some areas. But it also has some details that have been completely removed from the modern form of the story. For example, when George does fight the dragon, he does so underneath an enchanted orange tree and it protects him. And now you know where the orange tree in this story comes from.” 

Shannon’s series not only deconstructs the story of St. George, it completely reimagines it from a female perspective. In the world of Priory, Galian Berethnet claims to have single-handedly defeated the dark dragon known as the Nameless One with a magical sword called Ascalun after he rescued and married a Lasian princess. He uses this victory to not only make himself the King of Inys but to found a religion in his own image. According to Southern tradition, it was really the princess Cleolind Onjenyu who defeated the creature but only after rejecting Galian’s marriage proposal, and the titular Priory is her legacy, training a sect of powerful warrior women to follow in her footsteps,

“I wanted to examine that damsel in distress narrative and turn it on its head. And I really wanted to show a variety of women, and celebrate lots of different kinds of strengths in women. I love having warrior characters, but I also love writing women who are fantastic artists or musicians or politicians, or they’re brilliant at public speaking like Sabran is in Priory. I think there’s just something really powerful about that, about just unabashedly focusing on women and that not everything has to be depicted in relation to men or through the male gaze.”

For all its high fantasy trappings, A Day of Fallen Night is, at its heart, a book about how women exist in the world. It unflinchingly acknowledges the sacrifices and compromises they have to make to survive.  It asks uncomfortable questions about bodily autonomy and control and features complex relationships between women of many different classes, positions, and even sexual preferences. The fact that it’s hitting shelves during a time when there’s so much global uncertainty surrounding women’s rights, particularly in the United States, feels strangely fraught. 

“Suddenly its themes are way more relevant than I was expecting,” Shannon says. “It’s such a weird thing as an author because you don’t know what content the book is going to be released into. I knew there was a prolonged attack on Roe vs. Wade, but I had no idea this book would be released into a post-Roe vs. Wade world. So that did feel a bit frightening at the time because the main theme I was trying to explore in this book was motherhood. In this story, thematically speaking, the earth literally gives birth—to the High Westerns and their followers, the great wyrms that prove such a threat. And so that felt like a good book to explore the subject of birth, of motherhood, of bodily autonomy, and a chance to show a range of women and their different relationships with motherhood, because I feel like women are judged no matter what we decide about [having children].

Many characters in Shannon’s world don’t necessarily get a choice about motherhood in the first place. Berethnet queens are told they must have a daughter not only to continue the matrilineal dynasty of Inys but to maintain the magical hold they believe their daughters have on the Nameless One trapped beneath the earth. Sisters of the Priory may have children, but must maintain a certain emotional detachment from any daughters—and future warrior mages—they might birth. Some characters are adopted, others were abandoned, and still more don’t know who their birth mothers are in the first place. 

“It was really important to me to write a book that explored multiple perspectives on motherhood and also that was non-judgmental about any of the character’s decisions on it. And I just really wanted to explore the important relationship between mothers and children in this book. That’s why I think I ended up showing so many women at different stages of their life, you have Tunuva who is trying to recover from the loss of her child. You have Dumai, who really doesn’t want to have children. Glorian similarly doesn’t want children but is coerced into it. I also wanted to show intergenerational links between women, because I think they can be really important and empowering. There are a couple of scenes where a younger woman will look at an older woman and instead of thinking, “I’m afraid to be like her.” They think, “I can’t wait to be like her.”

Although A Day of Fallen Night and The Priory of the Orange Tree are both technically standalone stories, the two novels do sort of inform and talk to one another over the centuries that exist between them. Glorian Shieldheart has essentially become a hero of legend by the time the events of Priory take place, a development that impacts the way that story presents her—as more of a symbol or an idea than a real person. Whereas in Fallen Night, we see very clearly that Glorian is just a young girl, struggling under the weight of an impossible destiny she never asked for.

“A really big part of [this story] is about legacy and history and who tells whose stories and for what reasons,” Shannon says. “And obviously, with the House of Berethnet, so much of it is about maintaining the legacy of one man who just happens to have had all female descendants who are having to use their own bodies to continue his legacy. So it was really important to me to look at how Glorian was described in Priory—-and sometimes there are points in Fallen Night where it looks like I’ve made a mistake or described something inaccurately, but it’s because the history has been changed.”

Or, in some cases, because Glorian is more useful as a propaganda tool than as a real person. 

“During The Priory of the Orange Tree—if I remember correctly, it’s been a while since I read it myself—there’s a moment where Ead sees a statue of Glorian and she’s wearing full armor and it’s supposedly the moment we see in A Day of Fallen Night when she comes onto the battlefield with baby Sabran. But notably here, she isn’t wearing armor, she’s wearing her bloody shift that she’s just given birth in. But because the Inysh are obsessed with courtesy, they wouldn’t want to show Glorian in the shift. And it’s annoying because that’s s supposed to be a powerful moment for Glorian, when she’s like, she’s almost saying, ‘Look at what you made me do to myself. You will look at this and you’ll digest that.’ But the Inysh don’t want to think about the Queen’s body as a real, human [thing].]

Glorian’s battlefield triumph isn’t the only victim of revisionist history in the years to come, either. 

“We also see this happening with Glorian when she has her marriage to Prince Vetalda, which is nightmarishly horrible, and I try to present it as such in A Day of Fallen Night,” Shannon explains. “But by the time of The Priory of the Orange Tree, that marriage is being used to try and persuade Queen Sabran IX to marry an elderly man, the Chieftain of Askrdal. So that was a topic that fascinated me throughout both these books, particularly with the Berethnet story.”

And the specifics of the famous Berethnet legacy aren’t the only part of this epic tale that shifts over time. 

“I also looked at [these changes over time] in Dumai’s story,” Shannon says. “Dumai is only mentioned really briefly in Priory. And, again, that’s deliberate because her legacy, I imagine, was very difficult for the later Seiikinese rulers [to manage]. She was a great hero, obviously, she becomes this legend who managed to kill a High Western, but she also was in conflict with the reigning empress at the time, she basically declares herself queen while her sister is the empress. So does her legacy glorify the idea of going against the emperor or empress? That was something I thought  was interesting, how prominent she would’ve been at different points in history and why.”

Happily, for fans, Shannon’s sweeping Roots of Chaos series will continue in another installment, though the author herself hasn’t quite decided what the next story in its world will be. 

“I’m thinking it will be another prequel to Priory. I’m torn between two ideas at the moment,” she says. “One of them is going back to Cleolind and Neporo and Kalyba, and I will do that, but I might actually write one that’s set just after A Day of Fallen Night first. Because that story is about what happens when fire magic goes out of control, and in the period immediately after the Grief of Ages, star magic went out of control. And there’s a hint of it at the end when Glorian says something about the wild winter that’s coming and what that refers to. I think it would be interesting to establish the stakes of this world if we saw the other side of chaos. And then go back to Neporo, Kalyba, and Cleolind to show how this magic went out of balance in the first place.” 

But readers will have to settle in for a bit of a wait for the next installment because Shannon has plans to revisit her other best-selling series of novels first.

“I’m not going to write it for another couple of years, because I want to at least draft the sixth Bone Season book before I write it, but I really am excited to go back to it once I’ve had a gentle breather,” she laughs.

A Day of Fallen Night is available now

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

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