Samantha Shannon’s high fantasy novel Priory of the Orange Tree made a pretty big splash when it came out in 2019. Not only did it have detailed and expansive worldbuilding that supported a rich cast of compelling characters, the book was also huge—a full 830 pages long. I’ve heard some criticisms of Priory’s length in particular, but the novel has a lot of devoted fans nevertheless. Shannon’s fantasy world is built around a fresh interpretation of the story of Saint George and the dragon, and Priory did a great job describing religions and worldviews in conflict while telling a complex story about unprepared and individually weak people working together to defeat an existential threat. Clamor for more books in this world filled the internet, especially in the first year of the pandemic; Shannon delivered earlier this year with A Day of Fallen Night, a prequel set nearly 500 years before the events of Priory of the Orange Tree. I was moderately enthused by the news—I wasn’t entirely sure at first that a prequel would be able to hold a lot of suspense, considering how effectively I remembered Priory establishing and then shattering the status quo of its setting. I remained optimistic, however, until about a third of the way through the book, at which point disappointment started to set in.
Now to be clear, I don’t think A Day of Fallen Night is a bad book. I think perhaps the overall plot is a little weaker than Priory, mostly due to the characters never really knowing as much about what is going on as a reader who remembers Priory does. But the smaller stories and character work makes up for it, and Shannan makes a solid return to the genre of doorstopper fantasy novels (868 pages, if you were wondering). No, my issue with A Day of Fallen Night is much more personal, and it comes down to bloodlines. Three of the four viewpoint characters are the ancestors of characters from Priory, which means they have to have children—whether they want them or not.
It’s rare that I look at an original fantasy setting and think, “why isn’t this society homophobic?” Usually we have the opposite problem—oppression and prejudice included in fantasy worlds when they really don’t have to be. But it was Shannon’s increased inclusion of socially accepted gay, bi, trans, and nonbinary characters in A Day of Fallen Night that made me realize that the values and mores of her fictional societies really should lead to social stigma around those identities. The unfortunate result of this dissonance is that societal and religious forces pressure two of the main characters, a lesbian woman and an asexual girl, into having sex with men and giving birth to children—and the text can’t really treat this like a problem. Only in the last quarter of the book that a third viewpoint character, another lesbian who also faces this pressure to reproduce (but is never forced to), expresses how traumatizing such an event would be; but for the two other women, the horror of the situation is only acknowledged belatedly in the epilogue for one and not at all for the other.
I want to stress that all things considered, this is a relatively minor aspect of the novel. And I actually do admire Shannon’s ability to write characters of differing faiths compassionately and without irony. But the overall inclusiveness of her societies makes their intense compulsory heterosexuality feel weirdly uncriticized. If you enjoyed Priory of the Orange Tree mostly for the politics, the characters, or the dragons, then maybe this won’t be a dealbreaker for you. But for me, what made all those things sing was a lesbian romance to tie them all together, and A Day of Fallen Night nearly lost me multiple times on that account. There was simply almost too much uncomfortable straightness getting in the way.
Content Warnings: childbirth, plague, violence, sex
Samantha Lavender is a lesbian library assistant on the west coast, making ends meet with a creative writing degree and her wonderful butch partner. She spends her spare time playing and designing tabletop roleplaying games. You can follow her @LavenderSam on tumblr.