We Chat to The Priory of the Orange Tree Author Samantha Shannon Before Her Visit to Nottingham

Words: George White
Photos: Louise Haywood-Schiefer
Saturday 04 March 2023
reading time: min, words

Author Samantha Shannon created a best-selling sensation in 2019, with her sweeping fantasy epic The Priory of the Orange Tree picking up a fanatical global audience. Now she’s back with A Day of Fallen Night, a standalone prequel to that smash hit novel. Ahead of her visit to Nottingham’s Waterstones this month, she explains how she put together a beloved fantasy series…


Creating a whole new world…
The starting point came from wanting to reimagine the legend of St. George and the Dragon - a lot of the initial details I came up with originate from that in some way. There’s an Elizabethan version of the story that involves St. George fighting the dragon near an enchanted orange tree, and it protects him from the dragon’s fire. Exploring this idea of how a magical tree could keep someone safe became the basis for one of the magic systems in the series. I also really wanted to explore the mythology of dragons. I've always been so interested in how sometimes they're associated with water, but then they're also associated with the complete opposite, with evil and fire, and I ultimately created the two magic systems based on that binary. 

Weaving together separate narratives…
I think the most challenging element of writing these books is navigating multiple timelines. When I have several perspective characters, there are different things happening to them that take different amounts of time, and then I have to bring them all together. That is one of the biggest tasks when writing a book of this size. It’s a lot easier in my other book run [The Bone Season series] as that’s only looking through one character’s perspective. But with both The Priory of the Orange Tree and A Day of Fallen Night, pretty much all of the narratives eventually converge into one, and it’s very tricky getting all of them to come together. 

Sometimes I do have to tweak the timeline to make it work. For example, I really needed this one character to be at a battle at the end, but I just couldn't think of how to get him there in time because he was such a long way away. So I came up with various wild solutions, like having him ride a dragon into the fight, even though that's not really a thing you can do in this world. In the end I had just rearrange the chronology to give them more time to get there. So it can be an interesting challenge! 

I try to make each character layered and interesting, and to ensure they not only face global challenges, but that they have their own individual challenges as well

Crafting magical powers…
I always think it's very important to establish limits within the magic system. Otherwise, theoretically, anything is possible - which can lower the stakes significantly. If the reader knows that a character could just pull some mystical power out of nowhere to resolve the situation, they know they’re always likely to be safe. So I decided from the off that there would be various constraints on this. Fire magic can enable characters to create and deflect fire, for example, but I also make it very clear that they're not immune to fire. That helps to make sure certain situations have real weight, and can be more exhilarating as a result. 

Finding excitement in the everyday…
It was particularly important to set up interesting angles to everyday life in A Day of Fallen Night because that book is fundamentally about a global disaster - and I think that, in order to understand the stakes the characters are facing, you need to be able to see the world that they're potentially going to lose if this disaster takes complete hold. That's why the whole first part of the story is dedicated to what each character's ordinary life is like. And then I slowly thread through a sense of unease that will hopefully keep the reader on their toes, that steady unsettling of the status quo. Character is very important in this series. I really try to make each character layered and interesting, and to ensure they not only face global challenges, but that they have their own individual challenges as well.

I always think it's important to establish limits to magic. Otherwise anything is possible - which can lower the stakes

Starting a religion…
The main reason I based the story on the legend of St. George and the Dragon is because I was raised in the Church of England, and I remember singing this hymn called When a Knight Won His Spurs - that was one of my earliest impressions of the idea of a knight, one who kills dragons and ogres and that sort of thing. So I suppose the story overall came into my head within that religious framework, and I therefore wanted to tackle it within that framework. 

Also, I really wanted the story to not have conflict in the areas you usually find in epic fantasy; misogyny, homophobia. I think it’s perfectly valid to dive into those, and they can be interesting places to explore real world issues. But for myself, as a woman, I sometimes feel tired of female characters having to face misogyny - because then it feels inescapable. So I decided that one of the key conflicts the characters would be facing would not be related to that, but to religion, and religious conflict, and how different historical events can be interpreted in different ways by different religions. So there is, for example, one event that happens in the world's history that two religions interpret in entirely unique ways. I found that really interesting to interrogate. As someone who was raised religious and then later became an atheist, it's just a subject that's always fascinated me, and I loved creating all of the different faiths of this world. I really wanted to tie each one into the magic systems in some way too, so they do all reflect some part of the world's reality - it's just how it's being interpreted.

Embracing your fanbase… 

I was very pleasantly surprised by how many people read The Priory of the Orange Tree - and that’s in no small part down to TikTok and how many people have responded to it on there. I love meeting readers, hearing from them. It’s an honour as an author to be able to touch so many people’s lives, even those who live so far away from you. It’s a really wonderful part of the job. I owe a lot to my translators, too, as they broaden my audience a lot more than I could on my own. I hope people enjoy reading this new entry into the series just as much as they did the first book. 

You can see Samantha Shannon in conversation with Francesca May at Waterstones Nottingham on Tuesday 14 March


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