Warning: Spoilers nigh.
You guys. I hate reactions, but this is the world we live in right now. As to why I hate reactions, here’s a quick case study: About seven years ago I found what I thought was a video of Lorde’s live performance of Yellow Flicker Beat. Instead I got some random prick in a funny hat ranting about how he’d just watched another “pitiful” performance by “Lord or Lordy or whatever her name is.” It took me less than a second to hit the back button. I didn’t give two shits what he thought of the performance, I wanted to watch the actual performance. Thus began my lifelong vendetta against reactions, because for the most part I don’t see the point in them unless they’re calling out a flagrant social issue or debunking some idiotic trend. (If you also despise reactions, I won’t take it personally if you skip this one, because I cannot pretend that it’s anything other than a reaction post.)
Anyway. I started reading The Priory of the Orange Tree (Samantha Shannon) this week with Lori, and after the first 12 pages I had to stop and hop onto our buddy read thread because (1) the book is too damn heavy to hold up in bed and (2) I was having some serious Thoughts. Before we get started, let’s get a couple of things out of the way:
- If you loved this book, maybe don’t read this post.
- This is not a cultural appropriation witch hunt. I fully believe Shannon wanted her world to be genuinely diverse. I can’t speak for the other parts of the world, but the intention here is to illuminate what’s gone wrong so far with her version of Asia.
Special Disclaimer, Because We Are On the Internet:
I won’t judge people for loving this book. There are probably people out there who love Shannon’s Not Japan. There are people who won’t be bothered by the things that’ve been smacking me in the face for the last 19 chapters. There may even be people who are delighted with the pseudo-exotic characters and locale. That’s fine. However, my mama raised me better than that, and, since it does bother me, I’m writing about it. Regardless of the number of people who seem to have been taken in, I know a knock-off when I see one.
I just finished chapter 19, so I’m currently a quarter of the way through the book. I’ve been inundating the buddy read thread (translation: Lori) with nitpicky essays, but for blogging purposes all of my thoughts to date are captured in this post. We’re reading this book in increments of 19 chapters per week since it has 76 chapters and that conveniently divides by four, so I’ll be posting an update every week as I finish another stage.
Current impression: I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it. Leaving aside the problems with Seiiki and with the East in general, which we’ll get to in a minute, I was feeling more charitable towards the book than I had been in the beginning, but then I went and read the review written by Leelynn from Sometimes Leelynn Reads and now I’m FUUUUUUUURious because I know Tané’s dragonrider thing is going to be a bust. I mean I was sort of worrying that Niclays was going to expose her while he was staying in Ginura and that he was going to destroy everything she’d worked for but all the same I’m so mad omfg I knew I was going to regret reading the full review and I went ahead and did it anyway WHY DO I KEEP DOING THIS TO MYSELF DX Right now the book is hovering around 3 to 4 stars, but I’m probably going to end up mostly agreeing with Leelynn’s assessment, because I definitely agree when she says there’s really nothing to set the characters of color apart. This is both good and bad: on the one hand, there aren’t any blatant stereotypes that I’ve seen so far among the Inysh POCs, though Seiiki is rife with them, but on the other hand there’s little point in crowing about diversity when the POCs are blending into a white throng. At this point I don’t know if Loth and Margret and the other Inysh POCs actually have cultural identities and ethnicities of their own or if they’re just “Inysh,” which as far as I can tell means English. One of my concerns is that Shannon may be trying to present a colorblind narrative, in which the Inysh POCs are presented as white people who happen to have dark skin. (Also apparently in the audio version the Seiikinese sound Nigerian even though they’re supposed to be Japanese? What the fuck? I won’t be bothering with the audiobook. I would have thought that a book like Priory would go out of its way to make sure each POV was read by an appropriately cast narrator if only to shut people like me up, but there’s only one narrator for the whole thing, which strikes me as incredibly lazy.)
Re: brewing romances: Sabran is a bitch and I’m going to be so pissed if she and Ead hook up, which the narrative is hinting they will and I hate that because it’ll never be an equitable relationship unless Ead is allowed to speak her mind openly without worrying about getting roasted. I don’t mean that hyperbolically, she literally worries she’s going to be strapped to a pyre if Sabran takes her opinions the wrong way. I don’t have enough words to describe how crushed I was by the turn in Sabran’s characterization, because I liked her when I first met her and then she turned into an insecure tyrant with a habit of insulting people beneath her (translation: Ead) and finding inventive ways of making herself the victim when in actuality she is as pampered and cosseted as any other people-burning ruler. She’s not stupid and she’s definitely not a coward, but all the same I find her disappointing, despite this tremendously promising exchange:
Combe was lying. Loth could not have just stumbled upon a plan to send a spy to Yscalin and decided to go himself. The idea was absurd. Not only would Loth never be so reckless, but the Night Hawk would never allow such plans to be discovered.
He had contrived this.
“Something is not right,” Sabran finally said. “It is not like Loth to behave so rashly. And I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that none of you guessed his intentions. Are you not my councillors? Do you not have eyes in every corner of my court?”
This was a great moment, because Ead and Sabran both independently realized Combe was lying his ass off. Of course, I would’ve liked it better if Sabran had also proceeded to realize that Combe had orchestrated Loth’s disappearance, as Ead did, but it is what it is.
All that being said, I have been liking the book in the rare moments I haven’t been picking apart the portrayal of the East, because it’s surprisingly funny. I love that Shannon isn’t above roasting her own people (again, Inys seems to be England and Shannon is British). I’m glad they’re not presented as open-minded saviors; they’re deeply flawed, suspicious of outsiders, and so obsessed with a religion that only tells one side of a story that they willfully ignore and override anything that doesn’t agree with their narrative. They do despicable things to win converts for Virtudom (Christianity), and they still think of themselves as righteous and pure. Shannon may be on dubious ground with her version of the East, but she really nails the arrogant entitlement of the Inysh, particularly Sabran and the Saint. I’ll admit I was initially intrigued; I found it particularly interesting that Sabran speaks in the first-person plural when receiving guests and/or petitioners, speaking for both herself and the Saint, from whom she is supposedly descended.
‘My dear Oscarde,’ she said. ‘Flattered as we are, we seem to remember that you are already wed.’
However, this is only one facet of the fanatical religion that constricts Inys, and we are soon given a different view of the matter.
A portrait of the Saint gazed down from a wall. Sir Galian Berethnet, direct ancestor to Sabran. Raised aloft in his hand was Ascalon, the True Sword, namesake of the capital.
Ead thought he looked a thorough dolt.
I love Ead. She’s funny, she’s smart, she can use magic and she’s not afraid of killing people, and she has a bit of a temper, which keeps her from becoming unspeakably dull. Here’s Ead facing caudle:
Her friend came back with a cup. ‘Caudle,’ she said. ‘Tallys made it specially. Such a kind girl.’
The hot gruel, sweetened to the point of sickliness, was the answer to everything in Inys. Too weak to grip the handles, Ead let Margret spoon the awful stuff into her mouth.
And Ead letting Combe know exactly what she thinks of him:
‘I have a sense,’ he said, ‘that you do not think well of me, Mistress Duryan.’
‘I do not think of you often enough to have formed any opinion of you, Your Grace.’
And Ead and Margret sharing hard truths about Loth:
‘I think Loth will be all right, Meg. He knows now that the world is more dangerous than it seems.’
Margret snorted. ‘You think too highly of his wits. Loth will trust anyone who smiles at him.’
I really do hope Loth makes it home safely. He’s just been sent off on a probably impossible mission by the princess of Yscalin, which may or may not be a trap? It seems like she believes in this mission but his own sister just said he trusts anyone who smiles at him, so I’m not really sure I should trust his judgement. I suppose time will tell.
Speaking of Loth, this was my favorite exchange between him and Kit:
‘How do you suppose we find this tavern?’
‘By…relying on our instincts,’ Loth said, unsure. ‘The commons must get on well enough.’
‘Arteloth, we are courtiers. We have no useful instincts.’
Meanwhile on the other side of the world, here’s Niclays trying to deal with people who are not impressed with him:
The feeling did not last. The next morning, the chair-carriers began to complain about the owl-faced Ment they were lugging north, the spy of a prince who spat upon dragons, who must have the red sickness in his breath. Certain words were said in return, and from that point on, the jolting grew worse. The chair-carriers also began to sing about an insolent man no one liked, who was left crying on the side of the road for the mountain cats to take away.
‘Yes, yes, very funny,’ Niclays barked at them in Seiikinese. ‘Shall I sing about the four chair-carriers who fell down a cliff and into the river, never to be seen again?’
All that did was make them laugh.
I may have a lot of problems with Shannon’s East, but I do like that the Seiikinese are not presented as submissive. They don’t bow down to Niclays; they don’t hail him as a god. He receives respect from some Seiikinese based on his deeds, but others just barely tolerate him. I don’t like Tané’s interactions with Turosa, but she has more to lose than he does if she behaves unprofessionally, and I do admire her ability to keep her temper while still kicking his ass. I would’ve been kicked out of the dragonriders program and probably tossed into a dungeon by now if I’d been in her place. However, I can’t mince this: I don’t like the portrayal of the Seiikinese. I don’t like their habit of kowtowing and referring to “the honourable [XYZ]” because, coming from an author who is not Japanese, these things smack of stereotypes. I understand that it’s difficult to portray a different culture without either stereotyping or appropriating or both, but these stereotypes are so basic and so tired that some better solution could’ve been found.
I also feel that it would’ve been better if not everyone was addressed as “honourable” (e.g., “the honourable Tané,” “honourable Turosa”), because this completely strips all meaning from the word. The judges in the water trials are so elevated and have been in their positions for so long that it seems absurd for them to accord such a lofty honorific to the newly arrived, presumably teenaged sea guardians. And, as long as we’re discussing stereotypes, here’s a big one: Where the hell is the rice? Why is rice not mentioned in any of the Seiikinese meals consumed thus far? Are we just supposed to assume that it’s there? Did Shannon decide that feeding the characters rice every meal would perpetuate negative Asian stereotypes despite all the kowtowing and the honourable mentions? If this is the case, I want to go on record saying that this is one stereotype I’m completely onboard with, because probably 99% of my meals involve rice in some capacity. Unless we’re having pasta or something else that patently does not require rice, odds are I’ve gotta have my rice. I eat rice even when other people think I’m crazy for needing it. I ate rice with a calzone once. I may have brought shame on my ancestors, but do you see me regretting it? No. My mother always says there’s no sadder sight than the bottom of the rice bin, and my heart breaks for the Seiikinese if their supply of rice has been eliminated due to PC concerns. As my brother succinctly put it, are they even Japanese?
Everything Wrong with “the East” in 19 Chapters or Less
Let’s start with the most obvious.
The first thing that jumped out at me was of course the author’s note, which appeared before I even got to page one:
The fictional lands of The Priory of the Orange Tree are inspired by events and legends from various parts of the world. None is intended as a faithful representation of any one country or culture at any point in history.
Well, this is off to a great start. Shannon might as well have scrapped the disclaimer and just said “Please don’t accuse me of cultural appropriation,” which is basically what her note boils down to. Not meaning to be a downer here, but this is something you tend to notice pretty quickly if a large part of the world regards your heritage as a Halloween costume. To me this says that Shannon did what a lot of authors do and skimmed a bunch of countries for their folklore and then jumbled them all together in a big pot without looking too deeply into the underlying cultures. I doubt she was intentionally appropriating, but from what I’ve seen of Seiiki, and based on Shannon’s assertion that she borrowed events and legends from numerous cultures that were not her own, we’re starting to get into “Don’t tell my story for me” territory. Leaving aside the disclaimer, if we look at her version of the Asian side of the world, and if I’m reading the map and the fake Asian names right, then we have a mishmash of several countries:
- Seiiki: Japan
- Sepul Peninsula: Malaysia
- Empire of the Twelve Lakes: China, Tibet, and India
The disclaimer would’ve gone over better if China, Tibet, and India hadn’t all been stuffed into the Eastern pot and smushed together into one giant empire with no obvious territory lines, unless you count the rivers, which I don’t. It’s strange that Shannon made such a point of stating up front that she didn’t intend for any of her fictional world to be taken as a literal representation of the cultures she skimmed, because Seiiki is so clearly Japan. The names are Japanese(ish), aside from a handful of weird ones like Panaya and Purumé, and, like its real-life historical counterpart, it follows a strict closed-door policy, aside from the one surviving Western trading post, which is populated by people from……..I’m not quite sure yet. Is Roos supposed to be Dutch? That’s a literal shot in the dark because I really have no idea, though given that Seiiki is a fairly basic recreation of Japan it’s reasonable to assume that the other countries all represent some fantasyfied version of real-life countries. I’m crossing my fingers that the stereotypes won’t be too abundant, aside from the issues mentioned above. I don’t love the “soiled beyond redemption” thing from page 4, but the book is still young, so we’ll see.
Little Bathhouse of Horrors
My biggest issue isn’t the fact that Shannon saw fit to skim her favorite parts off of Japanese culture, it’s that she did it sloppily. How hard can it be to investigate the proper washing procedure at a hot spring? That’s not exactly a Japanese state secret, though it’s apparently less common knowledge than I thought because I was treated to this gem at the beginning of chapter 3:
The hot springs steamed in the morning haze. Tané shed her sleep robe, stepped into the nearest pool, and scrubbed herself with a handful of bran.
I think I just heard 130 million Japanese people screaming, because that’s fucking gross. In Japanese baths, including hot spring baths, you’re supposed to wash first in a separate bathing area so you don’t contaminate the water for other bathers. You’re supposed to be clean at the point you enter the hot spring. The point of the hot spring isn’t to get clean, it’s to have a nice long soak. I’m taking this as conclusive evidence that this book was not shown to any Japanese people prior to publication, because literally any Japanese person would’ve looked at that and screamed.
About those names…
Borrowing from other cultures is a slippery slope, but if you’re going to do it, the least you can do is do it right. I get that Shannon isn’t trying to depict specific cultures to the letter, but if I were writing a fantasy set in, say, a vaguely Nigerian culture, you’d better believe I’d be running it by people who could tell me if I was being offensive and/or inaccurate before I published it. If I were trying to base my characters’ language off of Igbo but it ended up looking more like Xhosa, that would be a huge fucking problem. Thus we come back to the names of Seiiki, and of the world in general, which are slapdash at best and unconvincing at worst. Throughout the book it’s become clear to me that Shannon’s ear is really off because almost every country in her world is filled with names that don’t pass muster, but, again, I can’t speak for the rest of the world, so the Seiikinese names are the only ones that will be discussed here.
Before we do a deep dive into why the names are bad, let’s do a crash course on the Japanese alphabet. The Japanese alphabet is built off of sounds rather than individual letters, so you can’t just mix and match random English letters and call it a day. For the sake of the couple of people I know for sure are reading this, and who I also happen to know are not familiar with Japanese, the alphabet is presented left to right instead of right to left.
Then there’s this extra alphabet, which with the help of diacritics covers the sounds not included in the previous table:
The names in Seiiki can be divided into three categories: (1) reasonably convincing; (2) looks weird, but can still be written; (3) really shouldn’t be fooling anyone and also may not even be possible to write.
|(se + i) + i + ki||hi + sa + n||(e + i) + za + ru|
These aren’t bad. They use actual sounds that I’ve actually seen and heard in both written and spoken Japanese. That said, it was a struggle coming up with three of these, which should tell you something about the rest of the names.
|ta + ne||pi + to + su||i + (shi + ya) + ri|
Tané makes me think that either Shannon watched Pokémon at some point and decided that that accent over the “e” was neato, or she was trying to fix the fact that most English speakers would pronounce it “Tayn” if she left it as “Tane.” The thing is, the acute means that the “e” should be pronounced “ei,” as in the word “lei,” so Tané by rights should be pronounced “Tah-nei,” but since we’re aping Japanese it really would’ve been better to leave it without the accent mark because it should be pronounced “Tah-neh.” Pitosu just looks weird, and if you dropped the name Ishari on me out of nowhere I’d assume you were talking about somebody from the Middle East.
|(ku + i) + ri + ki||o + ri + ? + ma||? + ro + sa|
If you’re still here, thanks for sticking around while I figured out how to write Kwiriki in hiragana. Orisima would be much more believable if it were Orishima; Japanese doesn’t have a “si” sound, but shima (“island”) is a common enough suffix. As for Turosa, to be perfectly honest he sounds like he should be fake Spanish instead of fake Japanese. The closest we could get to his name would be either Tsurosa (tsu + ro + sa) or Churosa ([chi + yu] + ro + sa), neither of which I find particularly convincing.
I just spent a lot of time tearing this book to pieces, so I thought I’d end the post with Onren giving Turosa angry fits.
‘Aren’t you too small to ride a dragon, little Onren?’ Turosa drawled. ‘You might be able to perch on one’s tail, I suppose.’
Onren looked over her shoulder at him. ‘I thought I heard you talking. Have we met?’ When he opened his mouth, she said, ‘Don’t tell me. You’re plainly a fool, and I have no interest in befriending fools.’
LAAAAAWLLLLLLL THE ONLY WAY THIS COULD’VE BEEN BETTER WOULD BE IF SHE’D KICKED HIM IN THE NUTS holy shit I love Onren. Unfortunately I keep associating her with hot springs because Onren looks like onsen, which reminds me in turn of Bathgate. And, because Shannon called attention to it in the beginning, I now find that I cannot stop dissecting every character and trying to figure out where the fuck they’re from. I do this less with the Western chapters, being less knowledgeable about Arabic, Dutch, and Spanish names, but the Eastern chapters have been a severe trial, and they honestly have been destroying my motivation, which is why I put off reading the bulk of this week’s quarter until literally last night. Will things get better? I sure hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.
P.S. I will be so angry if Turosa gets a happy ending fuck that guy I hope he gets eaten by a dragon
P.P.S. I keep wanting to read “owl-faced Ment” as “owl-faced Mentat” because apparently I’ve still got Dune brain why is this my life