Priory of the Orange Tree might just be the most magically anticipated fantasy novel of this year. And we can say with absolute certainty that it is worth the hype. Magical women, brave warriors, powerful queens and, of course, dragons – what more could you want. We were lucky enough to chat to author, Samantha Shannon about the experience of writing Priory and her favourite fictional dragons!
1. Priory of the Orange Tree is home to epic queens, dragons and magic – there is so much to unpack with all of the glorious detail that flows through it – can you tell us where you got your first inspiration for the novel?
There was never a single eureka moment for this book, as there was with The Bone Season – it was a few different ideas coming together over twenty years. I can trace the thread of inspiration right the way back to my fifth birthday, when I first saw Dragonheart. That film sparked a lifelong love of all things fire-breathing and scaly, and once I knew I wanted to be an author, I also knew I wanted to write my own dragon book one day. In 2014, I decided to do that by contesting and re-imagining the legends surrounding Saint George and the Dragon from a modern feminist perspective. I also wanted to write a novel that explored the different ways in which dragons are imagined across the world, had religious (mis)interpretation as a prominent theme, and intertwined mythology with some fascinating periods of history.Priory hatched out of all of this and more.
2. How did you feel about writing Priory while also writing the Bone Season series – was it refreshing to work in a different genre of fantasy?
It was, yes. I thought it was going to be impossible to divide my time between the two, as they’re so different – one set in Paris in the year 2060, the other a standalone in a fictional world inspired by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – but both projects ended up benefiting so much from my multi-tasking. Moving between them kept my inspiration for both alive. If I started to lose steam in one manuscript, I could switch to the other and recharge my creative batteries. I plan to always have at least two projects on the go from now on, as I find it so helpful to have that breathing space.
3. Ead and Sabran and Tané are wonderful characters, made more wonderful by their differences, can you say which character’s story you felt you knew first?
I’m so glad you like them! Tané was the first Priory character to walk into my head, and she’s also the character who’s most like me – an anxious workaholic – so she has a special place in my heart. Ead was probably my favourite to write out of the four narrators, though. Most of her story takes place in an Elizabethan-style court, and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed writing about the intrigue, opulence and pressure of life in the entourage of a queen.
4. Was it exciting to be able to tell a story using dragons – one of the most loved fantasy tropes?
It really was! I loved being able to write my own take on the most beloved of mythical beasts and create a taxonomy of creatures related to them, from cockatrices to wyverns to dragons born of fire and starlight. I sense that dragons are about to make a huge resurgence in fiction, and I can’t wait to see new takes on them.
5. What was it like to take the story of the dragon rider who revered dragons and contrast it with the characters who fear dragons more than anything?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted dragons to form the basis of the main religions of the book, with some people viewing them as gods and others as purely evil. There are benevolent and unpleasant dragons in Priory– the former connected to one branch of magic, the latter to another – and that divergence is the source of an age-old misunderstanding between the two sides of the world. Writing creation myths for my dragons and turning them into opposing faith systems was such an enjoyable challenge.
6. One of the most satisfying aspects of Priory of the Orange Tree is the wideness of the world and the richness of the detail of the court and its magic. How long did you spend building the world before you began writing?
I don’t clearly remember this, as I started the book more than four years ago, but I think I spent a few weeks sketching the basics before I jumped in. I believe in worldbuilding on the go, allowing your character to guide you as they go about their life. You never know if a paracosm is going to hang together, what details you need to add, or what gaps there are to caulk, until you throw a character in there and let them start telling you. I essentially built a skeletal world and added flesh as I went along.
7. Was it important to you to tell the stories of these diverse women?
Epic fantasy has historically been a male domain. Fortunately, many authors have been working hard for many years to change that, and I hope Priory does its small part in pushing that change forward. There are two male narrators, and I loved writing their stories – but the women are the ones whose actions have the greatest impact on the narrative. I wanted to write a feminist tale that allowed women from many backgrounds to control the fate of nations, eviscerated the damsel in distress trope, and wasn’t set in a violently misogynistic world.
8. Priory reads like an homage to the wonderful epic fantasy of the 70s and 80s but with a thoroughly contemporary head on its shoulders – was it fun bringing this type of fantasy right up to date?
It was great fun, and very liberating. I always meant for it to be a story that utilised many of the tropes of classic epic fantasy – an enemy returning from the dead, a hero with a magic sword, a hidden society of magic users – but left some of its more negative features behind.
9. Would you say there were particular stories or myths that lent inspiration to Priory?
Yes. The main one was the legend of Saint George and the Dragon – which isn’t a single legend, but a mythos. The one I most wanted to retell was a 1596 version of the story by Richard Johnson, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who turned Saint George into an Englishman from Coventry. I took several elements from that story and re-imagined them in a way that I hope challenges Johnson and his frankly disturbing ideas about what makes a hero. The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser and the Japanese tale of Hohodemi, which involves a magical fishhook and two jewels that control the tides, also had a significant impact on the story and worldbuilding.
10. Can you name your favourite fictional dragons?
Draco from Dragonheart was the first dragon I ever loved. I also love Rollo from Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho, Saphira from Eragon by Christopher Paolini, and Firedrake from Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke, which was my favourite childhood book.
11. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Neil Gaiman once told me to enjoy myself. Not exactly writing advice, but excellent life advice. Sometimes I can get so anxious about my work as I strive to make it perfect, so this was a reminder to sometimes sit back and enjoy the ride.
Priory of the Orange Tree will be released on February 26 and you won’t be able to put it down!