How to Build Fantasy Worlds: Lessons from Samantha Shannon

About the Book
Hello writers, and welcome to episode 7 of The Reading Room podcast. Thank you so much for continuing to listen to the podcast it means so much to me that you’re here. If you’re new to the podcast, I say welcome!
Today’s story, The Priory of the Orange Tree, is a fantasy in the classical sense: an epic 800+ pages set in a world, in the author’s words, “a feminist reimagining of the legend of George and the Dragon… intertwined with Japanese and Chinese mythology.” The story is charged with intricate and diverse world-building, captivating characters, and draconic wonder – and I loved it.
I enjoyed it immensely as a Reader, but I was captivated as a Writer, studying each paragraph for the ‘how’ this world was presented to me and this is what we will be looking at today. If you would like to explore any tropes, themes or elements in more detail, such as character analysis or pacing or you have a novel you would like me to explore in future episodes of The Reading Room, send me an email at
Until then, let’s proceed with today’s reading.
Close Reading So, what did you think of the world we’ve entered today?
Personally, I love how this story begins with an unknown entity, a ‘stranger’ and his arrival, weather-worn and scarred, from the sea. We, too, are strangers entering the land in the East and we are about to find out what the land makes of strangers. The simile associated with this stranger – ‘like a water ghost’ – hints at fable and fairy-tale, and as one that is feared. Indeed, the second paragraph adds to this image of what the East considers a water ghost to look like and what its purpose is. This cultural belief is illustrated further through its roots in ‘the stories of old’, fuelling the story with an ancient, ethereal, and mythical mindset that is embraced by the people of Seiiki. The description is stunning and I re-read it a few times before moving on to the next paragraph!
But I digress. Today is about world-building, so let’s start with the title of this chapter and the scope of the land that we have been introduced to so far. We have an idea of where in the world we are by the cardinal direction – East. A point on the compass, the marker grounds us to a location within the world and we can expect to learn more about its place within the story – such as its beliefs, laws, and cultures – through the eyes of the characters we are to meet. Incidentally, Chapter 2 is entitled West, Chapter 3 is East and so it continues, structurally flitting between the two.
We learn early on that Seiiki is the name of the island overall, that Cape Hisan is the province of Seiiki where this story begins. Seiiki has a Chief Official, a Warlord (Pitosu Nadama), plus an ‘honourable Governer’ of the Cape Hisan province. There is also the ‘artificial island of Orisima’, closed to the world bar a select few, which houses merchants and scholars from the Free State of Mentendon. Races are presented to us simply by reference throughout the prose – Seiikinese, Inysh (from Ascalon), Mentish, each with their respective language. Our introduction to Tane suggests a world that has built walls around itself, that it feels a need to protect itself from external forces. Alongside the glimpse into her life as a child, we see her in the present, older, and with a dagger in her hand in the presence of an outsider who is spiralling her thoughts and survival instincts. She is not where she should be and this feeds the readers’ curiosity.
The ruling bodies of the East and West are delivered with seamless exposition through the eyes of our characters. Take Tane’s fears for instance; her fear of the stranger is rooted in a societal stigma against ‘outsiders’ and ‘the red sickness’; she is afraid for the repercussions of being exposed for breaking seclusion; she is also afraid of acknowledging the language spoken by this Outsider, and of being bound together by the language itself. Her learned instinct regarding smugglers who travel the waters, abandoning those on their ships and leaving them to die at sea presents a further threat from the ‘water’ and adds to this theme of fear. With only a few references we are, so far, introduced to an atmospheric sphere of danger, risk, secrets, and rebellion. There is also a faith in the ‘the great Kwiriki’, a spiritual entity who Tane feels has sent her the outsider as punishment for breaking the rules.
As Tane decides to harbour the outsider, the language shifts from stranger to ‘prisoner’ as she takes him through Cape Hisan to Orisima. Note how we are shown her fear and trepidation rather than told she is afraid through how her hands ‘quaked’ as she wrapped a cloth around Triam’s face to keep out the ‘sickness.’ The ‘sleepless port’ and its ‘night markets’ and ‘shrines’ under ‘blue and white lanterns’ is a sight to behold and envision and yet there is an undertone of restriction and rules
What do you make of the character, Niclays, and what his backstory tells us of the world he inhabits in Orisima? What of his conversations with Triam and how they reveal his feelings towards the Queen of Inys and her reign. All of these experiences, impressions, and conversations provide hints at the novel’s undercurrent politics, beliefs, and cultural nuances.
Consider Seiiki’s traditions and rituals, such as Choosing Day, located in the South House and where Tane was meant to be as part of her ‘seclusion.’ Seclusion, purification, and selection. These are just some of the powerful indicators of societal structures presented in the novel and are felt by the characters we come across.
And then, as the chapter closes, we have the arrival of dragons! Creatures ‘born of jewel and sea.’ Stunning yet terrifying, graceful yet deadly, the people of Seiiki are not surprised by their existence, but by their sudden return and what it means.
Notable tips on world-building
When crafting a fictional world, consider the following question prompts to guide the structural blueprint of your story. These are just a few examples but, the more elements of the world you consider and list out, the more depth and dimension you can create and weave into your narrative:
1 – What type of world are you building? Is it a dystopian future for our Earth or is it an alternative Earth?
2 – What laws, rules, and restrictions are in effect in this world? Consider its politics, its culture, its people.
3 – Consider the terrain and its environment. Does it follow the Earth’s seasons or does it follow a different pattern? If it’s the latter, how would this affect the climate and livestock, and so on?
4 – What is the backstory of this world? How old is it? What is its history? Where does conflict stem from?
5 – What languages do the people speak? Do beasts converse with humans? How do civilisations communicate?
6 – Consider the stories you have read, including today’s reading. Revisit the fantastical elements within these novels and make a list of what excites you and explore the prose with this refreshed lens.
Today’s Exercise
If you’re interested in writing a fantasy story, decide what aspect of the story you are most keen to start with. Is it the world itself you want to create first, or the characters that drive the narrative forward?
Whatever excites you about the world, start there and list out as many qualities as you can in 5 mins. Once that time is up, restart the timer for 15 mins and write.
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It’s great that you’re here on this journey with me in today’s episode of The Reading Room podcast. Until next time, keep reading and writing, with your #eyestothehorizon

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