The Priory of the Orange Tree is high fantasy. I like high fantasy.
Sure, I’m also prone to the odd gritty tale of magical realism, but there’s nothing quite like sinking your teeth into a brand-new world with its own history, religion, politics, customs and languages.
I love turning the first page to find an intricately inked map with oddly shaped continents and romantic sounding landmarks. I love learning the history of long dead empires and waiting for that first subtle hint of magic.
Something about the experience brings me back to winter nights, staying up under the covers with The Hobbit, The Dragon Riders of Pern and The Deed of Paksenarian.
I’m a sucker for it, truth be told.
I’ve been trying to challenge myself to read more books outside my comfort zone, but recently I got that itch yet again and The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon scratched it perfectly. So, I’m going to review it in the hope that some of my fellow addicts might find some relief.
It’s set in a world that was nearly destroyed by dragons one-thousand years ago. Religions have risen around the mythic figures who battled them, each with their own accounts of exactly how it happened, but there are a few points that all can agree on. The enemy’s leader was an impossibly massive dragon called the Nameless One and defeating him was the key to ending the war.
Now the dragons are stirring again. Sightings are becoming more and more frequent. One nation has already declared allegiance to the beasts and political unrest is on the rise.
The story is told from four perspectives. A spy in the queen’s court who is secretly a mage, a perspective dragon rider, a noble diplomat and an exiled alchemist. Each of them brings a unique perspective and worldview to the story, similar to books like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings.
The spy’s name is Ead. She comes from a middle-eastern inspired South, and has been planted in Inys to watch and protect their queen. She’s calculating and lacks patience for people she considers ignorant, but she is also brave and considerate. Hers was my favorite perspective to read from, partially because it was fun to watch her pick apart the puritanical customs of Inys, but also because she cuts through the nonsense and gets straight to the heart of whatever it is that she’s dealing with.
The dragon rider in training is named Tané. She comes from an eastern land called Seiiki which live in harmony with a different kind of dragon, wingless ones that are peaceful and compassionate. 100% focused and goal oriented, Tané would stop at nothing to serve the dragons her people revere as gods.
Loth is a nobleman from Inys who grew up friends with the queen, but was sent away on a dangerous diplomatic mission to the Draconic Kingdom of Yscalin when certain political powers believed that he would try to woo her into marrying below her station. He is kind and honest to a fault.
Niclays is an old alchemist who was exiled to a port town on the eastern end of the world for breaking a promise to the Inysh Queen. He’s bitter, cowardly and generally terrible, but there are a few moments where a compassionate side shines through and you like the selfish old goat in spite of yourself… just a few though.
Telling a story from different points of view like this is great for high fantasy. It lets the author show you different sides of the same conflict, while showing the reader the social and political complexities of different cultures in the world they’ve made. The diversity of The Priory of the Orange Tree’s characters is one of its greatest strengths.
I do wish the chapters were a bit longer. No doubt Shannon intentionally kept them short in order to make each scene punchy and digestible – which they are – the problem is that it makes it difficult to get grounded in any given character in the early parts of the book. The pacing is a little arrhythmic at first, but you eventually get used to it.
Then there’s the action!
I’m usually cautious of long action scenes as it’s all too easy for them to get over-descriptive and underwhelming. Shannon knows how to keep the pace up. Her fight scenes paint a perfect picture of the action without getting bogged down in describing the exact position of each person’s sword.
I found myself deep in the throngs of more than one pulse pounder before looking over at my clock and noticing that PM had shifted to AM a long time ago.
Also, without spoiling any specifics, I wanted to mention that The Priory of the Orange Tree’s LGBT representation is on point. I’ve been starting to see an uptick in that regard lately. Leigh Bardugo’s The Ninth House, Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower and Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree all came out in 2019 and each of them feature prominent LGBT characters. It’s good to see. The genre has been sorely lacking it.
I liked this book a lot, but I do feel as a reviewer that I need to point out two areas where the story falls short.
The first thing is that The Priory of the Orange Tree is more plot oriented than character driven. The structure of the narrative is nigh on perfect. Events unfold organically and there are plenty of surprises to keep you on your toes, but it is at its weakest when character’s motivations and conflicts come into play. Most of the cultural conflicts that are built up in the story between the different characters just sort of melt away in the face of a larger threat.
The other issue I had was that the western dragons are completely evil. Not an aggressively invasive species. Not a unique culture of sentient magical creatures. They’re just plain ol’ bad guys. There’s nothing good or sympathetic about them — never was and never will be.
This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but that kind of Sauron-esk villain has just never been as interesting to me as more nuanced antagonists. At the end of the day, it’s really a matter of personal taste.
Still, I encourage all of you to buy and read it. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a high fantasy novel since The Wise Man’s Fear.
And here’s a bonus! The Priory of the Orange Tree is a standalone novel, so no need to worry about starting a series and then being left waiting years for a series to wrap up, (although I wouldn’t say no to a sequel!)
In the words of a great man and his annoying grandson,
Grandson: “Has it got any sports in it?”
Grandpa: “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”
Grandson: “Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.”
Thanks for reading,