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Review: A Day of Fallen Night by Samantha Shannon

The long-awaited prequel of The Priory of the Orange Tree stands on its own in Shannon's fantastic world history.

Montage of 'The Priory of the Orange Tree' and 'A Day of Fallen Night' by Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon dazzled epic fantasy fans when she released The Priory of the Orange Tree in 2019. Her feminist narrative filled with empowered women of all sexual orientations brought a much-needed change to the patriarchal confines that second-world fantasy stories tend towards. While not the first to do so, she proved once again that you don’t have to cling to misogynistic histories to make a fantasy world feel lived in and believable. It’s possible to not only imagine a world that throws off the shackles of the past, but create one that readers find themselves in. Fans raved and what began as a standalone is now a series.

A Day of Fallen Night

Five hundred years before the events in The Priory of the Orange Tree take place, A Day of Fallen Night follows three women as they navigate the disastrous events during the Grief of Ages. In the East, Dumai has spent her life in the mountain temples, waiting for the dragons to end their centuries long slumber. When a stranger visits their temple, she is thrust into a fate she never dreamed—or wanted. In the West, Glorian struggles with the duty her Berethnet blood will eventually demand. She never dreamed her time would come so fast. And in the South, Tunuva upholds her duty to the Priory, training to kill wyrms in case the Nameless One ever returns. Her faith has never wavered. If only she could convince the younger women to do the same. But when the Dreadmount erupts, it unleashes a catastrophic age of violence and terror that threatens all of humanity.

With an impressive eye for detail, Shannon seamlessly weaves the three women’s narratives together with a fourth—a young man struggling to prove his worth despite rumors that he’s the son of a witch. Each perspective leads into the next, building suspense and tension while drawing the reader deeply into the world of each character. Where some epic fantasy stories lag and linger for the sake of character development or world-building, Shannon doesn’t waste a single scene, making them all do double, sometimes triple duty to ensure they are all important and compelling without sacrificing narrative momentum. 

Shannon’s prose is a symphony to experience, with beautiful sentences readers will find themselves pausing to revel in. But as with her scenes, not a word is wasted, and woven inside the words are details you won’t want to miss. Each character is distinct, including the side characters, which is no easy feat given such an expansive cast.

It should be no surprise that in a world led by women, this novel is largely about mothers and daughters: How the burdens of one can be inherited by the other. These women are born into duty, some known, some unknown, and they have to face their responsibilities while struggling through terrible events. They have to cope with positions they don’t want, marriages they would rather not agree to, the heavy weight of parental and societal expectation, and the fear of never living up to those same expectations. In their own unique way, each woman has to choose whether to rise and meet the demands put on them, deciding if they will bravely seize their fate and destiny with no guarantee that they’ll succeed or survive. 

This is a story about finding yourself even when the world is ending. How to find hope, where to find the will to survive, and how to live unafraid in the face of death. Though this is a far-off world, these choices are present in our world today, in various forms, making their journeys heartbreakingly relatable. New generations bring both hope and frustration, while older generations cling to a way of life they refuse to give up. And over and over the cycle repeats, until something happens to force change. History is twisted to support beliefs that maintain certain societal structure, and often lessons are simply ignored in the pursuit of power. 

As she did in Priory, Shannon holds back on revealing the relative truth behind these myriad legends and beliefs. Each country has its own myths, legends, and even religious lore, and while distinct, there are similarities in all of them. It’s a fascinating exploration of how powerful stories can be, particularly when historical context is imbued with faith. Even more hauntingly realistic, each country refuses to even acknowledge any other way than theirs. The book takes a shared history that the nations could possibly unite around and become stronger because of, then fractures it. The characters’ refusal to admit perhaps their legends aren’t quite right keeps them separate, and as a result, weaker. We do see a glimpse of how unity could work, but even then, it’s only a whisper of possibility. And the question of what really did happen all those years when the Nameless One was defeated is still unanswered, opening the door for more in this world.

Shannon doesn’t back away from complex and difficult subjects, and she handles them with impressive nuance. This is a world on the brink of devastation and while the threat of destruction is never forgotten, the personal struggle of each character is always present and important. One never outweighs the other, giving each plot line a rich and vivid depth. From bodily autonomy, the emotional repercussions of loss, identity, sexual awakenings, and duty in a multitude of forms. The stakes, be it emotional or physical, are always high, the tension always taut, and when the elements of both arrive in the same scene, the result is spectacular.

The battles each character wages are a complicated dance, the tempo shifting from actual fights with terrifying creatures to carefully crafted poems dripping in intrigue and back again. They all require brilliant strategy and flawless execution, but neither one can be won through sheer brawn alone. It’s a testament to Shannon’s skill as a writer that she can weave such similarity into three distinct countries, and each one feels realistic and detailed. No matter how much distance separates various countries, the core of humanity remains constant, and Shannon does an excellent job showing this universal truth throughout the novel.

As in Priory, the diversity and representation are superb. Queer is normal in this world, ranging from two fathers, two mothers, bisexuality, and genderfluidity, without anyone having to fight for it or justify their lives. It’s a breath of fresh air to read queer relationships represented in normal abundance. Even the religious institutions have a feminist slant with queer acceptance woven in, from the Priory itself to the power granted down the Berethnet Queens. There are other biases these societies have, but it’s lovely that sexuality doesn’t have to be one of them. All of this will feel familiar to readers who were first introduced to this world through Priory of the Orange Tree, but these aspects remain just as refreshing to read.

A Day of Fallen Night is meant to be a standalone prequel. It’s the second in the series, but Shannon has commented that future books will also serve as standalones meant to enrich the world in individually connected ways. Fans will recognize elements of the story that were mentioned in Priory, but there aren’t any spoilers in either book that will make reading the other any less enjoyable. This is an expanded history, a different story with different characters. And for all the ways the two books fit together as a series, they are distinctly their own. You’ll be swept into both regardless of the order.