Monday, 15 April 2019

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Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Published: 26th February 2019 | Publisher: Bloomsbury | Source: Publisher
Samantha Shannon on Twitter

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 all her life to be a dragonrider, 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.
From Goodreads.

Book Depository | Wordery | Goodreads

I received this proof for free as a bookseller's reading copy from Bloomsbury for the purposes of recommending/handselling. I review all books I read on my blog.

Trigger Warnings: Death by earthquake, infertility, suicide ideation, dead bodies, discussion of suicide, and miscarriage.

I'd wanted to read The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon since first hearing about it, and then more so when I discovered it's a retelling of the legends surrounding St. George, patron saint of England. And while The Priory of the Orange Tree is a really awesome story, I was quite disappointed with some aspects.

But let's talk the positives first. Priory has a really complex and clever plot. Shannon wrote an essay for Unbound, Damsels Undistressed, about the various legends of St. George and how the writers of those legends had particular views of women and religion, and how she wanted to rewrite these problematic legends, and while it's not necessary to read the essay before reading the book, I found it gave an extra layer to the story, knowing what the history of this world is based on. It's really wonderful how she managed to weave all the legends together into this one high fantasy novel, where the whole world remembers the Grief of Ages/the Great Sorrow when dragons terrorised the world after the Nameless One was defeated a thousand years ago, and how they were all affected, and what that means for all the countries of the world in present day.

There are four narrators, two in the East, and two in the West. Eadaz du Zāla uq-Nāra has been sent by the secret magical society, The Priory of the Orange Tree, to be a bodyguard to Queen Sabran Berethnet in Inys. There is a legend that as long as a Berethnet is on the Inysh throne, the Nameless One won't wake up and return. The Priory has sent Ead to keep the queen safe, as she currently doesn't haven't an heir, so Eadaz is now Ead Duryan, a lady-in-waiting. With the wyrms of old waking up and attacking, and with assassins making attempts on Sabran's life, keeping Sabran safe is more important than ever. Arteloth Beck, heir to an Inysh province, and close friend of Sabran's and Ead's, he has been forced out of the country by Combe, Sabran's spy master, on the ruse of a diplomatic mission, but really to get him out of the way, as his close friendship with Sabran is hindering Sabran's people from finding her a husband. Sent to the Yscalin, who have turned their back on Virtudom - the countries of the West that follow the religion of the Six Virtues - and now worship the Nameless One, it is very likely that Loth will die, and Combe knows this. Tané is training to become one of the High Sea Guard - a dragon rider. When she sees someone swimming towards the shore the morning before she graduates, she knows this man could scuper this year's graduation; no outsiders are allowed in the West due to fear of the red plague and risk of contamination. Tané seeks the aid of a friend to hide him, so her graduation can go on as planned. Niclays Roos is an exiled alchemist from Mentendon, sent to Orisima, the last Western trading outpost in Seiiki, sent years ago for not giving Queen Sabran what she wants. It's to him that Tané's friend brings the outsider, to hide him, which turns his life upside down.

As you can see, there is so much going on in this book, and this is just the surface. Priory is a really well-plotted and captivating story! It has such fantastic worldbuilding; the magic systems, of which there are two. The history and the legends, and the religions, which, together, are the reasons for the bigotry in this world. Those of the Six Virtues pray to the Saint; Sabran's ancestor, Saint Galian, who defeated the Nameless One over a thousand years ago. Virtudom considers anyone who isn't part of the Six Virtues faith to be a heretic. Those in the south worship the Dawnsinger, a prophet who predicted the awakening of the Nameless One (though to be honest, we don't get told much about this religion). Those of The Priory of the Orange Tree worship the Mother, who those in Virtudom call the Damsel, wife of Saint Galian, who, they believe, rescued her and her people from the Nameless One on the condition she married him and converted to Virtudom, but who those at the Priory believe to have refused him, and founded the Priory to fight the draconic hoard, and they call Saint Galian the Deceiver for the lies he has told. Those in the West consider their dragons to be gods, and worship them. Those of the East believe all dragons to be the same - evil - and consider them to be the equivalent of what we would call devil worshippers. Then there are the dragons - of which there are two types. The dragons are really something, because there are the dragons we know of - beasts who breath fire, with large wings, and those of the draconic hoard; the results of dragons mating with normal animals, and then there are the Western dragons - no wings, but can fly due to the crest that draws power from the stars, and can only survive by frequent visits into the ocean. It's so well thought out! It really is quite amazing, and I really was hooked.

Priory is also really diverse. Niclays Roos is gay. There is a major f/f relationship, which I'm not going to talk about in any detail, because I think it's better to see in naturally develop. And when it comes to race, I'd say most - if not all - of the races in our own world are present in this book, all over the world, but rather than be seen as different because of race, people are seen as different because of their nationality. I'm pretty sure all the narrators except Roos are people of colour, but I wouldn't want to guess at which of our own races they would be.

So the book is really, really awesome. However, my main issue with the book is that it was far to short. In my opinion, it should have been at least a duology, but preferably a trilogy. I didn't realise until over half way through that Priory was a stand alone novel, because I could have sworn seeing Goodreads saying it was the first book in a series. But it becomes clear as the story goes on that it really is just one story. And I'm partly glad that I didn't realise until later, or I would have been feeling disappointed by a number of things much sooner than I actually was.

There are too many major points in the story that happened too quickly. To give a very vague idea, XYZ would be A Thing which would lead to An Event that absolutely couldn't happen or there would be disastrous consequences. And it always sounded like sorting out the Things to prevent the Events would be epic, but they were all dealt with far too quickly and far too easily. The stakes never seemed that high in the end, for these smaller Events happening throughout the story. And remember how I said this story is complex and clever? So there are a lot of these Things happening, and with them being dealt with too quickly and to easily, it was disappointing. Something would be resolved, and I would think, "Really? That's it? Just like that?" So many of the things that happen should have been bigger, should have had more pages spent on them, they should have been epic, but they weren't.

And also, because of it's length we don't really get to see relationships - platonic and romantic - develop enough to be satisfying, because weeks go by where we see nothing. We're often told about what happens off page, but we don't actually see it. So I wasn't really all that emotionally invested in the friendships or romantic relationships. Which meant that when some of the Events happened, or were about to, I wasn't all that bothered by what the consequences might mean for those closest to the narrators. To be honest, I didn't even care about the narrators as much as I would have wanted to either. Ead is the primary narrator, so I felt more for her, but I didn't care all that much for the others, because at times, a large number of chapters would go by where we wouldn't hear from certain narrators at all.

There was one narrator who I feel was treated quite badly. They were very important towards the end, but there were chapters upon chapters - weeks if not months in time - where we got nothing from this narrator, and while this happens to all narrators at some point in the story, it felt to me that this particular narrator was, in the beginning, more of a pawn being moved about to put them in a place they needed to be at the end. Their actions in the beginning are important in relation to other characters, and because of where they'll end up. It's like Shannon was thinking, "You will do X, which will lead to Y for this other person, and will mean you are at This Location at This Point in the story." And looking back on it, it feels really deliberate, rather than just how the story happened to flow. And with this narrator being absent from the story for chapters on end... I just think they deserved better. And there's so much that that this character experienced that we didn't see that I would have loved to have been on page.

Also, I felt a number of secondary characters were really hard done by. Truydee, Sulyard, Kit, Nayimathun, Aralak, Kalyba, Combe. Even Roslain and Katryen. These characters are all important either for the plot, or important to the narrators or Sabran, but we don't see nearly enough of any of them. I mean, seriously, some of these characters are actually pivotal to the plot. Without them, this story would be completely different. But they get so very few pages. They are too important for the very little we get of them. Their storylines should have been longer; I don't want their storylines changed, but there should have been a hell of a lot more than what they got. And why was Turosa even there?! I did think his character was going to be a major problem, and everthing to do with him just completely fizzles out. He absolutely wasn't needed, which I feel is a disservice to his charater. So much more could have been done with these characters. So much more, if this book was a trilogy instead of a stand alone. I really feel there is so much of Priory that should have been developed a hell of a lot more. There was a lot about the story that left me wanting, and I was quite disappointed a number of times.

I did enjoy the story, but I didn't love it. Yes, it's definitely worth a read, but I also feel it could have been so much more. However, a huge number of people absolutely loved this book, so maybe it's just me. Do read a few more reviews before deciding whether or not you'll read it.

Thank you to Bloomsbury for the bookseller's reading copy.

You may also like:

Furyborn by Claire Legrand Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

Over to you graphic

What have been your favourite recent high fantasies? Can you recommend me adult high fantasy where it's the women who are the major players? Have you read The Priory of the Orange Tree? Or will you be picking it up soon? Let me know all in the comments!

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