The Priory of the Orange Tree | Samantha Shannon
So this is going to be a controversial blog post as I’ve seen nothing but good reviews for The Priory of the Orange Tree, especially amongst YA readers but I have a *lot* to say about this high fantasy.
***Minor spoilers ahead***
Although I was a little sceptical going in – comparisons to Tolkein, Shannon’s age and her inexperience with fantasy – I went to an author talk held at work, in the Bloomsbury office, which convinced me to read it. Shannon spoke about her interest in St. George and the Dragon, her love of fantasy and dragon stories growing up and the volume of research she had done while writing. And it would be refreshing to read a high fantasy that wasn’t drowning in medieval patriarchal traditions.
The basis of the book and its history is a reimagining of the St. George and the Dragon myth. In this version Galian Berethnet (the St. George analogue) does not defeat the dragon, but merely claims to and begins a religion in his name. Almost a thousand years later, Queen Sabran, his descendent and ruler of Inys is being pushed towards marriage as her lineage is believed to be the only thing that is keeping the dragon, the Nameless One, trapped.
The book follows four perspectives; Ead, a member of the eponymous Priory of the Orange Tree who has been undercover as a handmaiden to Queen Sabran to protect her. Arteloth, a knight from Queen Sabran’s court who is sent on a suicide mission as he threatens Sabran’s marital prospects. Tané, a dragonrider from the East where dragons are worshipped as gods. Finally, Niclays, a Western alchemist who has been exiled after failing to find the elixir of life. The book begins as lesser dragons begin to awaken which will lead to the inevitable reawakening of the Nameless One.
Literally ALL of the Research
During the author talk, Shannon spoke about the amount of research she did before writing her book, and how often she went back to it. She has put a lot of love and care into this world. She knows the titles characters hold and their family trees. She loves to describe the elaborate clothing, from colour to material to little details such as embroidery. She also excels at describing food from both the East and the West. The world she has created is often a luxurious one, especially that of the palace which is described in a lot of detail.
Whilst this builds a solid foundation there’s one problem. It feels like because Shannon has done so much research and has a history for everything, she wanted to include it no matter what. The first 350 or so pages of the book drag with these kind of details. Do we need to know how a certain desert got its name halfway through the story if we are merely passing through it? Shannon has created multiple locations, belief systems and languages yet we spend almost all of our time at court with Ead and Sabran. Even when characters finds themselves travelling across the land, most of the action is limited to the inside of one palace or the next.
Representation =/= Good Writing
One of the reasons this book is being celebrated is because of the diversity of the cast and the main f/f romance. Admittedly, this is fantastic and is done seamlessly with characters being divided on their beliefs regarding dragons rather than their gender, sexuality or race. The unspoken equality between men and women is the gold standard: not remarked upon or pointed at excessively because it is normal.
However, the romantic plot between Ead and Sabran came a little out of nowhere for me. When exactly does Ead’s feelings towards Sabran shift from religious duty to personal affection? If I’m also being nitpicky it’s odd that in a world where no one bats an eye at gay relationships, Shannon chose to proceed down the route of not one, but two illicit gay relationships with no legit marriages to balance this out.
We have a huge cast of characters in this book, to the point that Shannon has also included a list of players at the back of the book. And I didn’t connect with a single one of them. There are two instances where a close friend dies where I made a mental note of it and moved on. It’s also clear early on that the main story is centred around Ead, so the balance between the four points of view is off from the beginning. By the end, characters such as Tané felt like they were only included earlier so that they could fit into the puzzle at the end of the book.
800 Pages is too long for this book
The plot boils down to being a good versus evil story, with the Western dragons being a generic evil. With this in mind, Priory needed better pacing and perhaps needed to be 200 pages shorter.
There is a major plot point featuring a prophetic riddle about the nature of dragons, the balance of the universe and the tools to defeat them. However it almost feels like an afterthought because it doesn’t have much relevance until about halfway through the book. It’s as if Shannon wanted to really establish the history before really committing to the plot. (Which was functional I suppose.) A more skilful writer would have balanced both worldbuilding and plot at the same time. As a result all of the action, plot and consequences happening in the back half of the book.
Shannon burns through plot in the second half of the book. At one point, Sabran loses the throne of Inys but Ead rescues her and then the throne is literally reclaimed within a paragraph. We see Ead in the Priory after many, many pages and her birth mother, Zala is mentioned once. A few dozen pages later it’s revealed that she was murdered. Several nations who have previously had no contact need to unite to fight off the dragons and they all more or less agree straight away. The narrative implies that this is because the threat is clearly huge but it felt lazy.
The revelations and twists come quick and fast and as a result lessen their impact. Coincidence after coincidence is labelled as fate when all the right characters end up in the right place at the right time because the plot required them to be there.
The book ends with a battle with the Nameless One and we get about a chapter of action. The plan to defeat him involves attacking a city called Carscaro as well as the main face-off. My suspicions that we wouldn’t witness both battles were correct and it felt like such a letdown after committing to reading so much.
Here Be Dragons (but not that many. and actually not that frequently)
Are you wondering why I’ve barely mentioned the dragons until now? I’d ask Shannon the same question, because for a world obsessed with them, we don’t get nearly enough dragon action. The fifth part of this book is titled ‘Here be Dragons’ and it is under 100 pages long, the sixth part, featuring the main battle with the Nameless One and his army of dragons and an army of Eastern dragons and their dragon riders, is even shorter. For a book with a dragon on the cover and the mythology based entirely on fire-breathing ‘wyrms’ in the West and water gliding, celestial dragons of the East this was hugely disappointing.
So why did I finish such a long-ass book that I didn’t enjoy?
Well, partly because I’m stubborn. I had decided I was going to finish it so I was. I also wanted to review it having read the whole thing. But I was intrigued by the plot and I felt like it had a lot of potential. Ultimately though it’s too much of a slog to get to the good parts and when you do, it’s a bit of a let down.