The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon

“Margret,” he said, “you are my child. I forgave you all your sins on the first day of your life.”

This book has been lauded for a lot of things – supporting feminism, its share of LGBT characters, its absolutely gorgeous cover and I’m sure it would heal the Draconic plague as well were the latter real.

The problem is, though: This book is way too long. The entire first third of the book basically consists only of (court) politics and scheming. There is no real storyline to follow yet; it’s basically all just building up slowly to the real story which is all the more sad as behind all the convoluted, long-winded, stilted writing hides a decent (albeit not very original) story:

After a thousand years of imprisonment by our heroes’ ancestors, the “Nameless One” – a dragon – is going to return and wreak havoc all over the world. Few people know this secret and even fewer are prepared and willing to actually do something about it.

Tané, a young lowly-born orphan, wants to become a dragon rider of “the East’s” sea guard but hides many a secret herself, harbours self-doubt beyond any reason and is one of those glorious few who rise to the challenge and act.

Sabran is the queen of Inys, a part of “Virtudom”, a political and religious alliance based on chivalric virtues, both pretty much the religious and secular leader and – by religious doctrine – the final bulwark against the Nameless One’s return.

Ead is a spy from the eponymous Priory of the Orange Tree at Sabran’s court and the latter’s confidant. She’s a capable combatant, honourable and virtuous (in more than just name) and fairly ambitious, aspiring to rise (out of her murdered mother’s shadow to beat!) from her respected but lowly position to much more exalted positions in the priory, meanwhile protecting and counselling Sabran, battling the Nameless One and pretty much anything else that threatens her or her charge.

And Ead is pretty much the boulder upon which this book precariously rests – and remains standing albeit an avalanche of issues. In short: Ead rocks!

So, to quickly summarise: We have a time-proven (formulaic) plot of good versus evil, we have three young women who will have to rise and shine beyond anything they ever expected, we have chivalric values codified into religion which complicates an already complex court and we still have about 70% of the book ahead of us…

And I must not forget to introduce the last two narrators:

Niclays Roos, an aging alchemist, on the other hand is a scoundrel, a villain from the books (sic!), an opportunist of the worst kind. Having tried to find the formula for a potion for eternal life his whole life long, he has been banished from Virtudom because Sabran lost her misplaced belief in Roos. He’s willing to blackmail himself out of any situation and would pretty much sell his grandmother or his own soul if it gave him an advantage.

Last but not (quite) least, there’s Loth: Sir Arteloth “Loth” Beck is the proverbial knight in shining armour – good-natured, honourable, an embodiment almost of the chivalric virtues but, alas, pretty much hapless and forgettable. He’s a nice-to-have-but-expendable sidekick, reliable and more lucky than competent.

That concludes the story and the most important dramatis personae but don’t despair if you’re into complex settings – after all there are about (wait for it…) 130 characters in total you’ll read about.

The long-winded, stilted narration in the beginning and the complexity are in fact the most important issues that drag this book down. Yes, the plot is formulaic, yes, the characters are “somewhat” archetypical as well but – and this is why “Priory” still gets three stars from me – when Shannon overcomes her own inhibition to go beyond what she seems to feel are the limitations of her genre, you feel the raw potential of an author who needs refinement, who needs someone to encourage her to break free from convention.

Shannon already does this fairly nicely when it comes to her heroines: First of all, almost all major characters (and lots of minor ones) are female. Not the helpless “damsel in distress” kind either but the strong and independent kind. I like that. What I like even more about it is, that it is – mostly! –unobtrusive – I didn’t even really notice this until I actually thought about it analytically. Of course, I knew Ead (did I mention she rocks?) and Tané are young women but I didn’t really care at all – why shouldn’t women be heroic and protagonists in fantasy?

So, yes, Priory can be read as feministic but in the way I personally prefer – not artificially trying to make a political statement or to throw it in the reader’s face but to simply “organically” make the point.

Similarly, the LGBT aspect works well for me: The LGB (T is missing) relationships are mostly well-written and believable – at least the female perspective (which, naturally, eludes me to some extent) reads well and is intrinsically plausible. I’m not quite as convinced about the male perspective: We only get to witness Roos’s and Jannart’s (Roos’s dead nobly-born lover) relationship post-factum as Jannart has died years before the book even starts. To me, a bisexual man, while not outright wrong, the remembered interactions do feel a bit “off” but that could be me.

As well as with feminism, tolerance/acceptance/open-mindedness/you-name-it towards LGBT (which is one of two major topics in my life) isn’t asked for or forced upon anyone. On the contrary: The relationship between Ead and her lover develops believably (again, from a male point of view at least) and organically which I appreciate greatly.

And, still, “The Priory of the Orange Tree” is, sadly, not a great book albeit written by an author who has the potential for greatness.

Whereas other authors simply try to bite off too much for their own good and overexert their limited talents, Shannon does have the talent required to write a great tale but lacks in experience. Thus, she makes a lot of mistakes even beyond the length of her novel, like killing off characters without it making much of a difference to anyone:

“Forgive me,” he said thickly. “Forgive me, […].”

… says one of our protagonists after one such needless death and that’s pretty much it. The victim does get a few “honourable mentions” but his death changes nothing. Do not kill off characters without a good reason and without an important impact on either the story or another character. The death here does nothing of the kind.

At other points in the story, Shannon is needlessly gory in her story-telling, e. g.:

“A musket fired and blew her guts across the cobblestones.”

This is simply not warranted and often annoys me and turns me away from a book.

Similarly, in contrast to her afore-mentioned subtlety and sensitivity Shannon sometimes has a tendency to be too explicit or in-your-face-ish:

“Something was changing in her. A feeling, small as a rosebud, was opening its petals.”

At the point in the story this occurs, any even slightly sensitive reader will long have envisioned said rosebud themselves. We’ve just been witness to the change we’re explicitly being told about here so it would better have been left unsaid.

Another even more poignant example comes towards the end of the book where Shannon thinks she has to really spell it out:

“A woman is more than a womb to be seeded.”

Yes, any sane person knows that and – I’m sorry – those who don’t are beyond redemption anyway.

Anyway, before I fall prey to overstaying my own welcome, let me summarise: “The Priory of the Orange Tree” is definitely overly long – only after almost two thirds of the book things really do start to happen.

There’s also way too much religious stuff around for my taste (“Virtudom”, “Dukes Spiritual”, I don’t need any of that) and, yes, some of the characters are formulaic and some sentences make me cringe (“Abandoning all hope of Halgalant [paradise], Loth waded after the murderous wyrm-lover.”)

Behind all that verbosity, formulas and some cringeyness hides a story that’s worth telling, characters worth knowing (Ead!) and an author that I’m going to keep an eye on.

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1 thought on “The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon

  1. I have been a long term fan of fantasy and own a fairly significant collection of such literature. So very recently when I chanced upon this book and saw the glowing reviews, I had to read it. My two bits on the effort are as follows – It is a middling read as far as narratives are concerned. While the story has merit, I felt that it lacks the wow factor. The positive conclusion was long foregone and quite unlike what Raymond Feist or Robert Jordan would have developed. It was all too easy in the end. Certain elemental characters were not developed in full and one always got the feeling that the book focussed too much on portraying women as the de-facto lead by denigrating men. One does not have to show men in poorer light to highlight the role of women – by going down that path, the author is guilty of doing exactly what men have done in various fields to the role of women. All narratives build on people and places and ideas. This is an ongoing process and does not have an estimable timeline – by rushing through to the end I feel that Samantha lost out on an opportunity to create a wider stage. Another aspect that struck me was the one dimensional aspect of the narrative – especially when some of the central characters (both good and evil) shared bonds cutting across timelines. That’s all I have to say.

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