Title: The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019)
Author: Samantha Shannon
Read: 3rd – 28th March 2019
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
“A world divided. A queendom without an heir. An ancient enemy awakens. The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door. Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic. Across the dark sea, Tané has trained to be a dragonrider since she was a child, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel. Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.“ (Synopsis from publisher)
I don’t even know how to begin to review this book. It’s a complicated epic fantasy, chock full of detail inspired by a myriad of cultures and mythologies, and, ostensibly, it’s a Saint George and the Dragon retelling that is so much more. I don’t think you need to be more than passingly familiar with the legend because, to be honest, the source it’s retelling isn’t all that important – rather, the book is more so about how legends and histories grow and evolve and become master texts for the politics and cultures of the people who prescribe to them. The legend isn’t always as it seems and, sometimes, knowing the truth behind the myth isn’t easy to take.
“Some truths are safest buried. Some castles best kept in the sky. There’s promise in tales that are yet to be spoken.”
To be honest, after reading the first few chapters of Priory, I felt disarmed and overwhelmed. I was dropped into a world and expected to keep up and it had been a long time since I’d read something like that that wasn’t heavily based on a single culture or peoples with which I was already familiar. When you’re told a story is a YA fantasy with elements of Russian folklore, you know what to expect. When you’re told a book will be set in a medieval court style setting, you know what to expect. That’s not to say everything about Priory felt unfamiliar – the entire chivalric element of Virtudom and Ascalon gave me the medieval, Arthurian vibe, and a certain section with Ead searching for someone in a forest also gave me war flashbacks to reading Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Samantha Shannon clearly knows her source material intimately, but that’s probably why she’s not afraid to completely pull the rug out from underneath you and your expectations. And I loved that about this book, because it had been a long time since I felt truly floored in quite the same way by a fantasy story. So, although I was blindsided, and I found a good quarter of this book to be hard to get through initially (it was just so much), that is not a criticism of the book. Rather, it’s a criticism (if anything) of my own personal complacency, and I think the readers and writers of the genre’s complacency, with world-building. I had to slow down the speed at which I was reading and start to piece together the world in my head, with Samantha Shannon’s help, of course!
“That is the problem with stories, child. The truth in them cannot be weighed.”
One of the strongest elements of Priory IS the world-building; it’s vast, it’s detailed, and it’s every bit as “epic” as you would come to expect in an epic fantasy novel. As well as the microcosmic detail of the various different houses and lords and ladies, there is also the macrocosmic view, as Samantha Shannon is very skilled at moving between characters and perspectives and, with this, moving between their relevant locations too. There’s something almost cinematic about this quality within the book. But what helps to situate a reader amongst the richness of Samantha Shannon’s imagined world is the dragons. A lot of the societies within the book can be roughly summarised by what their view on dragon-like creatures is; whether they worship them, whether they fear them, whether they are beholden to them, whether they work alongside them. All of the religious, political, and cultural aspects of the story circulate around the legend of an ancient evil, the draconic Nameless One who allegedly commanded a fearsome horde of dragons and was imprisoned a thousand years ago, although the exact details of how humanity defeated it are shrouded in mystery – and myth. The countries of Virtudom subscribe to the belief that the Berethnet line on the throne is the only thing that keeps the Nameless One imprisoned, whilst other factions have alternative ideas about that. With this complexity and cultural difference, The Priory of the Orange Tree makes its readers question the very idea of myth and history which is, after all, written by the victors.
“We may be small, and we may be young, but we will shake the world for our beliefs.”
Now, onto the characters. It’s not wholly surprising that Ead quickly became my favourite character, although, I was mildly surprised to find that Sabran wasn’t a POV character – something about the way this book was marketed and the blurb was phrased made me assume (wrongly) that we would see inside Queen Sabran’s head. But it was not to be, and I couldn’t be too disappointed in that because, actually, it demonstrates just how differently a person can be perceived by every single person around them, and Samantha Shannon is extremely skilful at knowing which POV would best tell the story she wanted to tell in Priory. It’s through Ead’s perspective that we see (from afar and then closer) the political and personal struggles that her Queen comes up against – and there are a lot of them that Ead herself has to thwart.
“No woman should be made to fear that she was not enough.”
None of the personalities of the vast cast of characters were simple; at times, their decisions were frustrating to a reader, at times they said just the wrong thing and made trouble for themselves, at times they went ahead and DIED which was extremely rude when I’d just started to like them. (I can’t remember the last book I read where that happened multiple times but, boy, Samantha Shannon is cut-throat, guys!) I liked that a lot of the characters I ended up liking as characters weren’t necessarily the best of people (I’m kind of looking at you, Niclays) – they had their flaws, sure, but they weren’t straight-up villains (and I do normally love me a cackling villain), because that simple characterisation is nowhere to be seen in this book. Elsewhere a last-minute shout-out must be made to Arteloth Beck aka Loth, whose physical and metaphorical journey over the course of the book I particularly enjoyed as he started to come into his own in the latter half, and to his sister Meg whose snarky interactions with him upon his return to court made me cackle with delight. Elsewhere, I’ll admit that I didn’t connect quite as much to Tané’s perspective as others did, but that’s ok because even not connecting entirely, I could still see how her character’s journey would be incredibly important to the overall arc of the story. Plus where Tané was there was also a talking dragon so, you know, I can deal with that.
“To be kin to a dragon, you must not only have a soul of water. You must have the blood of the sea, and the sea is not always pure. It is not any one thing. There is darkness in it, and danger, and cruelty. It can raze great cities with its rage.”
In conclusion, this is the lush and complex fantasy I was promised and, though I had some personal issues with the pacing and development of the plot, I couldn’t rightfully rate this book anything lower than I did because it was just so thought-out and well-crafted. Whether you enjoy pirates, dragons, religious turmoil, secret societies, court drama, badass women getting shit done, The Priory of the Orange Tree really does seem to have something for every reader. For many, it was a highly anticipated and hyped book that, when all is said and done, deserves all the hype and more.
” ‘Reading,’ Ead said lightly. ‘A dangerous pastime.’
Truyde looked up at her, sharp-eyed. ‘You mock me.’
‘By no means. There is great power in stories.’
‘All stories grow from a seed of truth,’ Truyde said. ‘They are knowledge after figuration.’ “