Samantha Shannon on subverting Bury Your Gays and new sapphic fantasy A Day of Fallen Night

Samantha Shannon (L) and A Day of Fallen Night (R). (Louise Haywood-Schiefer_Bloomsbury)

Bestselling author Samantha Shannon chats to PinkNews about skewering tradition, her new novel A Day of Fallen Night, and creating a fantastical world where queer women thrive.

Back in 2019, Samantha Shannon’s sweeping fantasy epic The Priory of the Orange Tree made waves in the publishing world. Following a tender romance between two women amidst tales of fire-breathing dragons, fierce battles and a Queendom in strife, the book immediately garnered a dedicated following of sapphic fantasy fans who saw themselves reflected in an ancient, magical realm.

Long before the bestseller lists came calling, however, Shannon was simply focused on creating a fantastical world that reinvented age-old legends. Her journey started with The Bone Season, an ongoing dystopian series first published a decade ago, but it was the New York Times-bestselling Priory that became a smash hit sensation and cemented Shannon’s status as a frontrunner in the fantasy universe.

“The whole premise began as a reimagining of the legends of St George and the dragon,” Shannon tells PinkNews. “It is a legend I grew up with and I was always fascinated by the idea: ‘what if the princess slayed the dragon, not St George?”

Roots of Chaos (under which Priory and A Day of Fallen Night fall) is Shannon’s second major series, a collection of standalone epics all rooted within the same magical universe. Unlike the vast majority of stories in the fantasy genre which are dominated by male triumph and violent misogyny, Shannon’s world is one that unapologetically embraces everything from female-centric royal lineage to badass female dragon-tamers.

“You are free to write societal expectations as you please. I asked myself, ‘why not?'” says Shannon.

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“Because epic fantasy has always had quite a close relationship with history, you are more likely to be misogynistic or homophobic. Fantasy can be a great engine to explore these issues. But certainly as a queer woman it can also be quite comforting to read a book where characters don’t have to face systemic oppression. It is a genre for escapism and possibility.”

In Priory, we meet Ead Duryan, a member of ancient organisation The Priory, who secretly protects Queen Sabran the Ninth at court with forbidden magic as she fights to protect her realm from destruction. Fantastical though it sounds, Shannon says the novel was very much rooted in history.

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“It is inspired by the court of 16th and 17th century England, and Queen Elizabeth I in particular,” Shannon explains. “I’m not suggesting it was queer but Elizabeth and her ladies-in-waiting had a very intimate relationship.

“It was normalised during the Elizabethan era that you would share a bed with a person of the same sex for warmth and company. I found that an appealing setting for a romance so Ead and Sabran’s relationship naturally developed from there.”

Not only did writing the romance change the course of Shannon’s career, but it also had a revelatory effect on her personal life. “I realised I wasn’t straight while writing the first book so that was a lovely experience,” she recalls. “I got to explore myself through the novel and the romance between Ead and Sabran”.

It was because of this much-needed representation that Shannon gained a significant TikTok following. “I didn’t actually realise what was happening with TikTok for quite a while. I just suddenly knew that a lot more people knew about it.

“I eventually traced it back and it was great to see because I wasn’t sure how the book would be received because it is very big. I hoped that wasn’t going to be intimidating.

“It’s nice to show the joy of growing old together. Historically, media has used the ‘bury your gays’ trope, where the couple never gets to live a full life”

“But to see people diving into it has been such an incredible experience. I feel a lot of gratitude for all the discussion, it is so great to see a community of readers who love sapphic fiction. It just seems to be growing bigger and bigger.”

Shannon is certainly part of a growing revolution within the fantasy genre. There are now more stories centring queer women than ever before on bookshelves; you need only look to fan favourites such as Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow and Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun for proof of that.

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“I’ve met several women who told me their fantasy worlds were misogynistic when they were writing them, and after reading Priory, they realised they didn’t have to be,” says Shannon, who adds that she has even edited The Bone Season, to remove “small instances of sexism” that were indicative of her assumptions about fantasy when she first wrote her debut novel.

Jasmine Throne (L) and Iron Widow (R). (Orbit/Penguin)
Jasmine Throne (L) and Iron Widow (R). (Orbit/Penguin)

Shannon’s latest novel, A Day of Fallen Night, brings together all the things she has learned over her career. Set centuries before the events of Priory, an eruption of a volcano brings forth a large number of fire-breathing dragons that are “hellbent on destroying the world” – and power couple Tunuva and Esbar, a pair of lesbian warriors, that must survive the cataclysm.

“It was really lovely exploring an established relationship, because they have so many memories to draw from,” explains Shannon.

“”They are wildly in love with each other, they have banter and have fun”

“It’s nice to show the joy of growing old together. Historically, media has used the ‘bury your gays’ trope where the couple never gets to live a full life, so it was really important for me to show a diversity of relationships within these queer spaces.

“They are wildly in love with each other, they have banter and have fun. They have enormous respect for each other.”

A Day of Fallen Night also introduces Dumai, a twenty-something living in a Seiikinese mountain temple. “She has known she loves women for quite a while but doesn’t get to embrace that part of herself until the events of the book happen,” says Shannon, who adds that the character is especially poignant because she “didn’t have those feelings until that age either”.

Despite the enormous success of Priory, Shannon did have her hesitations.

“Following [Priory] has been quite a daunting prospect. It’s nice because I know I have an audience waiting for it. But it was also a risk because it doesn’t follow the same cast of characters.”

While she admits that giving fans a totally new collection “feels quite nerve-wracking,” she’s also hopeful that her books will encourage people “to question their default way of thinking”.

For the time being, Shannon says that she’s putting Roots of Chaos series on the back-burner “for a little bit”. Fans shouldn’t be too disheartened, though, as she’s also toying with the possibility of two more novels after A Day of Fallen Night. Long may the legends continue.

A Day of Fallen Night is available to buy here.

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