The Priory of the Orange Tree
Samantha Shannon

NOTE: This is not an all-encompassing review. Earlier thoughts and details can be found here. If you loved Priory and are looking for validation on your taste in books, maybe skip this post.

You’re off the edge of the map, mates. Here there be spoilers.


Overview

Hoo boy.

I was supposed to finish this on Sunday, but I ran out of patience with the sheer size of the book, which has been sitting around on my desk for over a month because I don’t know where else to fucking put it. I was also out of patience with the story, which skews between touching, entertaining, and infuriating, but we’ll get to that in a bit. The highlight of the final quarter was discovering that the story was 27 pages shorter than I thought it was, because there’s an extensive character index in the back.

I was on the verge of giving this book three stars because, all things considered, I don’t actually hate it, but then I saw that other people have been comparing Shannon to Tolkien and I can’t tell you how much that pisses me off. This isn’t the next Lord of the Rings. It’s not the next Game of Thrones. We can all sit down, because it’s not even close. I’ve spent the better part of the last month saying I was going to give the book one star if Niclays survived or if a number of other displeasing things happened, but, though Niclays did survive, he’s not exactly what I’d call happy and there were parts of the book I enjoyed, so I settled on two stars as a fair rating. I’m not in a hurry to set the book on fire, but it’s not something I would choose to reread unless all the other books in the world got tossed into a volcano. Now that I’ve finally finished it, it is most definitely getting kicked off my bookcase because I can’t imagine what use I could possibly have for it unless I wanted to use it as a weapon.


Story + Characters

The Priory of the Orange Tree is a wannabe epic standalone fantasy promising dragons (sort of), diversity (sort of), and badass women (okay, I’ll agree with that one). The story is narrated by Miduchi Tané, a young dragonrider from the East; Eadaz “Ead” uq-Nāra, a mage from the South; Niclays Roos, a disgraced alchemist from the West; and Arteloth “Loth” Beck, a naive but good-natured courtier from the West. Though some of their hemispheres overlap, they are all from different countries: Tané is from Seiiki (Japan), Ead is half Lasian (Saudi Arabian?), half Ersyri (maybe Syrian? not really sure about this one), Niclays is from Mentendon (the Netherlands?), and Loth is from Inys (England). Their lives collide when the world is threatened by the imminent rise of the Nameless One, a giant fire-breathing dragon who was defeated 1,000 years ago, but who has recently begun to break through the seal that holds him. Amidst the chaos created by the Nameless One and the turmoil of their own differences and prejudices, the four narrators have to find a way to work together before the world goes to shit, or just before they kill each other. If this sounds like a great premise, it’s because it is. I like the idea of four different people from three different hemispheres getting together and learning to resolve their cultural differences while saving the world. I like that the Western characters get called out for knowing only one language, while the characters from other regions all seem to be at least trilingual. Throw in some dragons and it’s basically Christmas.

In the hands of a more succinct writer this might’ve been amazing, but it is instead a super bloated masterclass in stalling. For a book that includes dragons, pirates, and magic, it’s shockingly dull. The story starts out at the measured pace of a snail in a straitjacket, but after about 623 pages our heroes find the cheat codes and everything starts moving a lot faster, with the result that about 90% of the action is crammed into the last 208 pages. It’s also rushed past the point of credibility. All the rulers in the known world magically get along nicely and work together with minimal conflict despite Shannon’s constant harping on the potentially war-inducing issues that have kept them all apart for the last millennium, the plot coupons have all been collected, none of the main characters end up in the afterlife, and everything wraps up more or less neatly. The final quarter almost seems like it might belong to a different book, or maybe just to a book that got its second wind after a particularly long food coma.

Part of the reason for the slowness is that 50% of the cast is aggressively boring. Tané seems like she’s set up to become a dragon-riding badass, but it quickly becomes clear that her personality isn’t really a personality so much as the biggest case of impostor syndrome I’ve ever seen in my life. While I understand and sympathize with her plight, she’s a fucking dragonrider. She’s strong, smart, and resourceful. She’s better in combat than probably at least 99% of the other characters, including Turosa, the asshole who keeps trying to sabotage her while they’re in dragonrider school together. (Speaking of boring, Turosa is dropped from the story shortly after the water trials and is never mentioned again. Am I the only one who’s petty enough to want to see his face when Tané rejoins the dragonriders?) Over the course of the book her insecurity becomes more ridiculous than relatable, to the point where it overshadows every other trait she possesses. In real life people are more than the sum of their insecurities, but Tané is so consumed by hers that you don’t see anything else. In the final quarter of the book she snaps back to life and starts doing stuff and is actually incredibly cool, but by then it’s too little too late and all I can see is a wasted opportunity. The best that can be said about her story is that she doesn’t get shoehorned into a romance with Turosa, who deserves to die alone. As a side note, the only reason she suddenly becomes cool is that she finds a magic jewel stitched into her side and starts using it to control the sea and hijack random ships with almost a literal tractor beam while steering them around hull-wrecking reefs. I cannot be the only one who pictured this.

On the other end of the dullness spectrum is Dr. Niclays Roos, an anatomist and struggling alchemist who’s about 500 years old and spends most of his time crying about how terrible his life is. He was banished to Seiiki seven years prior to the events of the story after swindling Inysh queen Sabran Berethnet IX, and has never stopped bitching about it in the entire time that he’s been there. He would’ve been easier to take if he weren’t whiny, cowardly, and self-serving. He allows others to be tortured and executed for his transgressions, and, though he claims to be indifferent towards and even eager for death, he’ll grovel in front of anyone if it’ll save his life. His spinelessness earns him the nickname “sea moon” (jellyfish) when he is kidnapped by pirates. Even after his banishment is rescinded and he is allowed to go home, he can’t stop complaining. If I could strangle him myself, I would. I spent most of the book hoping he’d die, and I was so disappointed when he came back from the seeming dead. I literally do not see the point of his existence, because the roles he fulfills could easily have been assigned to another character. The book would’ve been about 300 pages shorter if he’d ended up on the cutting room floor where he belonged, but Shannon seems to have had a bit of a soft spot for him, because he ends up with far more than he deserves. The best part of his story was when he realized he’d slept through the final battle.

It was Eadaz uq-Nāra who had mortally wounded the Nameless One with the True Sword. And then, as if that were not sufficient heroism for one night, she and Tané Miduchi had finished him off with the jewels. It was the stuff of legend, a tale destined to be enshrined in song – and Niclays had slept through the whole damned thing. The thought made a smile pull at the corner of his mouth. Jannart would have laughed his guts out.

Aside from Tané and Niclays, who are so dull that they deserved their own shout-outs, the rest of the cast is kind of a blur. The one bright spot is Ead, a feisty, fire-hurling mage from the eponymous Priory of the Orange Tree, though I also really liked Loth and devoted half a post to explaining why his sister Margret is a total badass. If Shannon ever gets the urge to write a book that’s just about Ead and Meg, I would sign up for that so fast. There were so many amazing Ead moments, but this one is one of my new favorites:

At noon, Margret let Aralaq into the bedchamber. He licked Ead’s face raw, told her that she should never walk into poisonous darts (‘Yes, Aralaq, I wonder that I never thought of that before’), and spent the rest of the day draped across her like a fur coverlet.

And another one, because I really love Ead and I have no self-control:

For a long time, neither of them spoke. Then Ead held out a hand, and Sabran came to the bed and embraced her, breathing as if she had run for leagues. Ead held her close.

‘Damn you, Eadaz uq-Nāra.’

Ead released a breath, half sigh and half laugh. ‘How many times have we damned each other now?’

‘Not nearly enough.’

That being said, I didn’t love Ead’s romance with Sabran because she was fine on her own and I never like romance anyway, but I got used to it. And yet, even though it wasn’t my favorite aspect of the story, I was pleased with Ead’s and Sabran’s ending. I like the idea that they’ll each have a decade to do what they need to do before they run off into the sunset. I like that they’re not just abandoning their duties; they are both fully committed to their respective responsibilities, and I really respect that. My only issue with the ending, aside from the inexcusable pacing, is Fýredel, who inexplicably vanishes after the final battle. Fýredel is the Nameless One’s second-in-command and is the main mischief-maker up until the point the Nameless One appears, so you’d think he’d be given an ending more definitive than “Well, I guess we’ll get him tomorrow,” but apparently Shannon ran out of space.


Feminism

The best part of Priory is its deep commitment to female characters and female stories. Everywhere you look, there are women. The men are either villains or supporting characters. At no point do they overshadow the female leads, who run the story competently and also save the world with minimal male interference. Even the mythology of this world centers around women, which is pretty cool. Cleolind Onjenyu’s backstory is fucking amazing, and I would not object to a whole book about her defeat of the Nameless One.


Diversity

The first page of the book is dedicated to people raving about how well developed and diverse Shannon’s world is, which made the reality more disappointing than it had to be. I’ve seen others say that they can hardly believe this world isn’t real and for the life of me I don’t know why, because I have no trouble believing it isn’t real.

If we adhere to the strictest definition of diversity without checking for quality, then, yes, the book is diverse. However, I have a lot of problems with Shannon’s version of Japan, to say nothing of the problems I have with the rest of her pseudo-Asian continent. I can’t speak to the accuracy with which other parts of the world are represented, but the East mashes a handful of real-life Asian countries together and then dilutes them almost beyond recognition, presumably to make them more palatable to western audiences, which to me produces the same effect as a racially homogeneous cast. The Asian characters don’t feel Asian. They feel like a non-Asian writer’s idea of Asians, which is exactly what they are. It’s almost as if Shannon watched one anime and took all her inspiration from that, because the Eastern chapters are very anime-ish, and not in a good way. If you’re looking for a good East Asian fantasy, this isn’t it. Seiiki reeks of tokenism and stereotypes, which are thrown into even sharper relief by Shannon’s obvious unfamiliarity with the language and a handful of very basic things that literally any Japanese reader could’ve corrected. If the best you can offer your non-white readers is the same tired stereotypes we’ve already seen a hundred times over, you’ve got some work to do.

To be completely fair, it’s not the world itself that stretches credibility; it’s only the East I take issue with. Shannon’s world-building understandably shines in the West, which is far more interesting and engaging than her canned notions of the East. I’ve said before that the book is slow and I stand by that, but I couldn’t help getting drawn into Sabran’s court and the intrigues therein. The court of Yscalin was similarly interesting, and I wish we could’ve seen more of it. I particularly liked the frequency with which the rest of the world roasts the Inysh, who are presented as xenophobic, monolingual, and rigidly intolerant of religious viewpoints that don’t agree with theirs. The Inysh habit of burning at the stake anyone who tries to present an alternate narrative is most sharply called out by Kagudo Onjenyu, High Ruler of Lasia:

‘I would be grateful for your sword, Kagudo,’ Sabran said. ‘If you chose my battle front.’

‘Indeed.’ Kagudo sipped her wine. ‘I imagine you would enjoy the company of a heretic very much.’

‘We call you heretics no more. As I promised in my letter, those days are at an end.’

‘I see it only took the House of Berethnet a thousand years and a crisis of this magnitude to follow its own teachings on courtesy.’

And, if the book has done nothing else, it has at least taught me to avoid caudle, which is beloved in Inys but apparently despised by everybody with sense.

Ead vs. Caudle

‘Who brought the fruit?’

‘That,’ Margret said, ‘is a wondrous tale. And I will tell it to you as soon as you’ve had some caudle.’

‘Is there anything you think that foul stuff doesn’t cure?’

‘Cankers. Otherwise, no.’

Tané vs. Caudle

[Tané] knew [the Inysh] capital was called Ascalon, and that they had the largest and best-armed navy in the world. Now she also knew that they lived in damp and cold, kept idols in their bedchambers, and forced their sick to drink a lumpy gruel that set her teeth on edge.

I’ve never actually encountered caudle because that’s not a thing in the States, but you can bet I’ll be watching out for it if I ever make it over to the U.K.


Final Thoughts

The writing wasn’t bad and there were parts of the book that I really enjoyed, but this wasn’t enough for me to overlook the sloppiness of the East and the dullness of some of the character arcs. Priory has been billed as the perfect introduction to fantasy literature, which I can somewhat agree with because it’s not too deep, but at 831 pages it’s kind of a strenuous entry point, and people wishing to learn more about fantasy might be better served by starting with The Hobbit.

If you’re looking for a good East Asian fantasy more richly developed and better thought out than Priory, here’s a few suggestions to get you started. Unfortunately they do have issues of their own and they all have romances to which I strenuously object, but I still love them.

  1. Three Souls – Janie Chang
  2. The Ghost Bride – Yangsze Choo
  3. The Night Tiger – Yangsze Choo

I only have three at the moment because the Asian authors I’ve read tend to lean more towards contemporary and historical fiction than fantasy, but I’m working on reading more. I do have a number of Asian fantasies on my TBR, but I refuse to recommend any book I haven’t read, so for now the list will have to stay short.