When I finished A Day of Fallen Night, Samantha Shannon’s 880-page prequel to her epic New York Times-bestselling The Priory of the Orange Tree, I burst into tears. Not because I was sad, though there were some seriously heartbreaking moments in the stories that span the Grief of Ages, but because I was overwhelmed with the fact that it exists at all. The Roots of Chaos series, which encompasses Priory, Fallen Night, and a third, unwritten book, is to queer fantasy what The Lord of The Rings is to straight fantasy. I know that’s nerd blasphemy, but it’s true. No matter how far you travel on the back of your ichneumon, no matter how high you fly your dragon, no matter how deeply you dig with shovels or magic, you will never even come close to the edge of Shannon’s world — a universe that’s bursting with complex, fully realized queer and trans characters.
The Priory of the Orange tree takes place during the reign of Sabran — the 36th queen of Inys, ninth of her name — during the return of the Nameless One, a western dragon formed in the fires of anarchy and decay. Priory endlessly references the Great Sorrow, a time, 500 years ago, when the broken earth spat out a bunch of evil that nearly destroyed the world. A Day of Fallen Night takes place during that time, and includes characters who are already legendary to us, like Glorian Shieldhart, the Inysh queen who rode into battle with her newborn baby strapped to her side. It also introduces us to characters living and loving in places we’re familiar with, like the Priory. And it gives us characters from realms we’ve never even imagined.
Over four years, four narrators from four nations take turns guiding us through the build-up and eventual eruption of the Dreadmount, and all the terror that follows. Dragons burning cities to the ground, turning wildlife into malformed demons, unleashing a plague called the red sickness that literally transforms the blood inside the body to fire and cooks people from the inside. There’s Glorian, the heir to Virtudom, a teenager who’s spent her entire life hiding in her parents’ shadow, learning the ways of the Saint. There’s Duami, a godsinger from a mountain in Seiiki, who is forced to confront her hidden past and save an entire country. There’s Tunuva, a Sister of the Priory and companion to the future Prioress. And then, our token male, Wulf, who is honestly just so wonderful that I stopped being annoyed almost immediately when switching to his POV.
The Roots of Chaos is a series that both honors and skewers fantasy traditions (as well as knifing patriarchal religions, like Christianity, in the guts at every opportunity). Inys is a queendom, which seems radical on the face of it, but in reality, it has reduced its unbroken line of queens into walking, talking wombs. The queens of Inys rule the realm, and stand in for the Saint, but they don’t even have control over their own bodies. The Priory of the Orange Tree is a magical, communal sisterhood, one where women lead, and women do the fighting, while men cook the food and tend the gardens and raise the babies — but no love is allowed to come before love of their founder, the Mother, even the love of their own children. Rulers convert to religions to expand their own nations and consolidate power, driving out heathens in the process — but those witches who know the ancient ways are often saviors, not bad guys.
And, oh! — the whole thing is just so very gay. Three queer love stories make up the bulk of the romance, a middle-age lesbian couple among them; something I’ve never seen in a fantasy book in my life. I was so enraptured with all the queers that by the time the body-heat-to-stay-alive trope popped up, I nearly melted from the inside like I, too, had the red sickness! And trans characters too, without any hand-wringing or explanation. There’s a discussion about a child born in the Priory who was raised with the girls until he realized he was a Brother and moved in with the men and boys. There’s nonbinary members of Glorian’s Virtues Council, and her doctor is nonbinary too. They/them pronouns, and rather than Lord or Lady, Duke or Duchess, they are Lade and Duchet. When Dumai arrives in a kingdom looking for an alchemist with a woman’s name, she is informed that he goes by this name now, and that’s the end of the discussion; she simply switches pronouns and gets on with trying to save the world. Shannon trusts her readers to pick it up fast and go with it, the way she does with every other part of her lore.
There’s no way to get around the real-world troubles that make their way into this fictional universe. The brutal ramifications of climate change. The endless suffering caused by leaders that won’t heed the warnings of a coming pandemic. The violence of governments seizing control of women’s bodies. But there’s hope here too — and hope in story is how humanity has found hope for real, since the beginning of time. “A flower in a world of ash,” the Grand Empress tells Duami, “is proof that life endures.”
A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon is out now.