A Day of Fallen Night (Samantha Shannon) – Book Review

An apocalyptic plague. Warring factions out for blood. And an ancient evil rises again. Nothing major then, in this, A Day of Fallen Night, the highly-anticipated prequel to Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree, one of 2019’s breakout fantasy novels that was lauded for its examination of high fantasy through a feminist lens whilst also being a complex tale that balanced court politics, ancient mythology, queer romance, and a global apocalypse against a world-ending wyrm (think a cross between a dragon and a snake with a terrible attitude and you’re there).

Written in large part during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, A Day of Fallen Night takes place several hundred years earlier than its predecessor, during a time referred to only as The Grief of Ages, a time of global tumult, during which famine, pestilence, plague, and dozens of villainous dragons have awoken from their fiery slumber to bring about death and destruction on all.

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First things first – if you didn’t enjoy The Priory of the Orange Tree, it’s unlikely you’ll fare better with this prequel. That’s not to discourage any potential reader, but merely as a statement of fact. Shannon imbues both novels with the same high fantasy sense of storytelling, crafting multiple fictional worlds, dozens of characters, and overlapping story threads, motivations, and arcs with dizzying precision and elegance, whilst not neglecting to throw in some  devastating action beats and set-pieces that combine character and spectacle in generous measure, all alongside court intrigue, betrayals, religious fervour, and budding romances. Impressively, however, both works can be read entirely independent of one another, so new readers shouldn’t feel the need to read Priory ahead of Fallen Night (although it is encouraged); given both books’ impressive sizes (Fallen Night clocks in over eight hundred pages), it may be more of a ramble rather than a sprint through these works, but is well worth undertaking.

Again, it’s certainly not a stretch to say that A Day of Fallen Night mirrors Priory in many respects; both tomes follow a similar structure with a quartet of protagonists at the figurative four corners of the world each finding themselves facing an ancient evil on the rise. This time around, the heroes include a young princess, a soldier with a shrouded past, a Priory priestess, and a mysterious girl living in an icy mountain range, each with their own worries, struggles, and revelations to explore through the book’s impressive length, and each root-for-able and likeable in their own flawed ways. Shannon isn’t one to shy from diversity either; out of her four protagonists, at least three are explicitly queer, and the same number are non-white, helping populate a world that reflects our own better than fantasy has a historical precedent for doing.

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The same worldbuilding Shannon has displayed throughout her works continues in A Day of Fallen Night, which draws inspiration from our world to infuse its fictional realms with. Inysh, the realm of young Princess Glorian, is a neat allegory for Christian-inspired Western Europe, while Seiiki wears its influences from East Asia on its sleeve, and the snow-frosted Hroth and its people easily evoke Viking and Norse culture. Each has its own flavour and feeling, making a battle in a sand-strewn city near the Priory, a desperate scramble atop an icy peak, and a showdown between a monstrous wyrm and a battalion of soldiers in the lush Inysh countryside feel genuinely worlds apart.

If there’s any real difference felt in A Day of Fallen Night, it’s the lack of threads being drawn quite as closely. The protagonists are allowed to fall and draw apart from one another, linked by a common enemy, but without rallying together to eliminate an immediately emerging Big Bad (the book skips along timewise, covering two years in the main narrative). Readers coming from Priory will already be aware how that shakes up things a few hundred years in the future, after all.

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Instead we get a broader, more expansive look at the realms and the people who inhabit them, from the treacherous to the triumphant, and how they deal with an apocalypse on their hands. Said apocalypse is, of course, avertable (again, this is a prequel to The Priory of the Orange Tree), but the parallels Shannon draws to the recent pandemic are unmistakable;  citizens complain about washing their hands in vinegar and others use cloth masks to protect their faces from a plague that is sweeping across all the realms in line with the recent wyrm awakening.

At the heart of the book ultimately is an exploration of the relationship between mothers and their children and the role that motherhood has for all. Whether it’s the very real matrilineal dynasties on display (such as the Inysh queendom, which has an unbroken line of female monarchs since its inception), or the way that the decisions of an expectant mother can impact on the life of the child, A Day of Fallen Night is keen to explore these responsibilities and these choices from the very first page. Quite literally as a matter of fact – the prologue centres on a handful of expectant mothers, all grappling with their own choices, whether that’s to protect their child, secure a home for them regardless of circumstance, or even bring them into the world as a duty, rather than out of maternal desire. These themes permeate Shannon’s writing, turning no one into outright villain or victim, and ensuring that the reader walks away with a bit more nuance in their other understanding of mother-child relationships across the spectrum.

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Ultimately this is a beautifully constructed novel which expands on the world and helps bring context to a pivotal moment in the timeline that Shannon herself established prior. Full of deep emotion and complex characters, A Day of Fallen Night builds upon the considerable history Shannon has built, informing decisions and clues in Priory, while ensuring that newcomers won’t feel out of their depth. It’s an impressive feat.

What will come next no one but Shannon herself knows. An even further prequel about the mythic Cleolind Onjenyu, the first slayer of wyrms? Or maybe a further adventure following Priory‘s surviving characters? Regardless of what it ends up being, it’ll be eagerly awaited by its fans – and rightly so.

A Day of Fallen Night is out on 28th February from Bloomsbury Circus.

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