March 05, 2019

Samantha Shannon

Of queens and dragons

An 848-page fantasy novel is a daunting task for any writer. But an 848-page standalone novel, completed in the middle of another bestselling series? Preposterous. Which simply makes Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree even more astonishing.

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An 848-page fantasy novel is a daunting task for any writer. But an 848-page standalone novel, completed in the middle of another bestselling series? Preposterous. Which simply makes Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree even more astonishing. Written in between installments of her extremely popular Bone Season novels, Priory is a wonderfully complex, female-driven fantasy novel with dragons, ancient evils and just the right amount of political intrigue. We talked to Shannon about reimagining mythical creatures, which of her fictional worlds she’d like to live in and what prompted her shift into high fantasy.

Your latest book has the kind of heft and scope that seems to demand a secluded week or two from the reader, but that’s nothing compared to the undertaking of writing. How many years did The Priory of the Orange Tree take to complete?
Over three years—April 2015 to June 2018.

What inspired you to take on high fantasy? Who are some of your creative influences in the genre?
I wanted to write a book that explored some of the history of our world—particularly the 16th and 17th centuries—but also to incorporate myth and legend, and to have the freedom to create my own countries and events. Epic fantasy was the best genre for that. Most of my influences for this book were historical (e.g. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, various versions of Saint George and the Dragon, the Nihongi and the Kojiki), but some of the authors I admire within speculative fiction are N.K. Jemisin, Zen Cho, George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Laini Taylor.

You give a great deal of care and attention, not only to the characters, but to the creatures they encounter, embellishing common fantasy animals with your own zoological quirks. Which was your favorite to reimagine?
The ichneumon! They’re mentioned in literature of old—sometimes under the name echinemon—as the enemy of the dragon or serpent. In Priory, they’re huge, loyal, mongoose-like animals that have teamed up with human mages to fight wyrms. They have powerful jaws with teeth that can pierce scale, and their bones can be used to fashion weapons.

You’ve been hard at work on The Bone Season and its sequels for years. What made you take a detour from that series to create an entirely new world?
I started The Priory of the Orange Tree during an interlude in the Bone Season series, where my editor had the manuscript of The Song Rising for quite a while and I was unable to start work on the next installment. Since I’m a full-time author and needed to occupy myself while I waited for notes, I decided it would be the perfect time to start writing a re-imagining of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon.

You veer between a number of characters in this story. Which of the voices or perspectives came to you most naturally? Which was the most rewarding to work with?
Tané was the first of the four perspective characters to step into my head. Out of all of them, she’s most like me—an anxious workaholic with imposter syndrome. Ead and Niclays came next, and finally, Loth. I loved taking each of them through their arcs and unpicking their various backstories, but Ead was the most rewarding to write overall. She’s shrewd, brave and certain of her beliefs, with a bit of a dry sense of humour, and her story is bursting with court intrigue and ancient secrets. Ead is also the character whose story is most connected to the title.

If you could live in one of the civilizations you invented for this book, which one would it be?
Tough one, but probably Seiiki. It’s a beautiful country—a mountainous island of deep forests and black sands, surrounded by the limpid green-blue waters of the Sundance Sea, where glowing dragons roam the skies and swim beneath the waves. It’s also home to the calendar trees, which bear different coloured flowers every season.

Do you plan to write any more books or stories set in this universe?
I would love to, yes. The world of Priory has more tales to tell . . .

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Priory of the Orange Tree.

Author photo credit Louise Haywood-Schiefer.

Get the Book

The Priory of the Orange Tree

The Priory of the Orange Tree

By Samantha Shannon
Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781635570298

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