Note: This is a review of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree. I avoid spoilers but touch on general themes, world build, and plot dynamics. You have been warned.
The Good. The Priory of the Orange Tree came to my attention via the best possible path: received as a meaningful gift picked out by an acclaimed author. I had read very little epic fantasy written by a non-white male (with the gargantuan exception of Robin Hobb, one of my all-time favorites and a must read for anyone who reads fantasy). Though I would go on to read one of N. K. Jemisin’s trilogies first, it gave me great joy to have a true female written dragons and sorcery-style fantasy waiting in the To Be Read wings. In her own genre-defying twist, my wife Cheryl who does NOT routinely prefer fantasy picked it up before I did. She noted upon finishing that she did not know what to think as someone new to the notable epic fantasy element of a meticulous, existence-threatening, multi-kingdom and era world build. (She liked it, mind you, but reserved detailed judgment for when I finished.) The Priory of the Orange Tree is unique in that it is a large tome that is also a complete single volume with no sequel necessitated. This is most pronounced in colossal hardback form. This means the story was designed to begin from scratch and end in one 800-page go. One of the most laudable aspects of Shannon’s writing is how it deftly pulls from real world history and religion, established fantasy and medieval fairy tale tropes, and recent genre-pacing norms. Fans of Le Morte d’Arthur and A Song of Ice and Fire alike will find much to appreciate.
The Priory does several things so well that it has me wondering why in the name of Galadriel they haven’t been done before. Of the four incredibly developed POV third person narrators, two are overtly homosexual with romances (past and present) central to the story and two are subtly asexual – or possibly also homosexual – with meaningful friendships at the core of their respective characters. Either way, there is little here by way of heteronormative relationships except on the margins of the story and complete with little twists themselves. Just as importantly, the three most consequential characters are all female. They are believable and every bit as genuinely realized and heroic as any male protagonist in the genre — though those are in there too. Racial diversity is also built into the world, both in terms of individual characters and also as it impacts the various kingdoms encountered. This is the fantasy novel that should have been written a generation ago but wasn’t. This means it reads as both overdue and quintessentially 2019. The other thing of note is a complex religious element that is intended to be turned on its head as a very important aspect to the world build (with some shade thrown toward Christendom). This is done in the same way that other great works of fantasy weave characters and plot elements from previous generations into momentous legacy impact to the present story line. It is welcome, a touch different from what I’ve read of late, and done by an author who commands her material but has her own things to say about.
The Nitpicking. Despite how long the single volume seems, The Priory of the Orange Tree is in my humble opinion way too short. This is easily a story that would have soared with three weighty trilogy volumes. The Priory starts with a solid introduction to characters, religion, kingdoms, historical context, magic, and dragons. Then, well, it kind of races through developing the plot. If you are a reader who welcomes this, it’s possible that the very thing that had me raising my eyebrow will have you clapping your hands. The story moves incredibly fast starting at the one-third mark. I felt this most acutely near the climactic end when moments that would have been more dramatic with slower builds came and went in a brisk manner. I can definitely see The Priory as a successful television series with minimal changes. Visual storytelling would assuredly do well with this pace. Heck, the characters leap across oceans and kingdoms with the jarring speed of a late-series Game of Thrones episode. (Cheryl felt it was too slow in the beginning, actually, so this is both a Your Mileage May Vary thing and maybe a specific genre norm that I hold in particular esteem.)
Go Read The Priory of the Orange Tree. My nitpicking aside, the gender and sexuality focus is extremely welcome and impeccably well done. We’ve read enough male focused works and will again. Go enjoy this for what it is. Let’s trust that this can become an integrated aspect of the genre. Though I prefer to bond with a multi-volume epic fantasy series, I get that a single, fast-paced volume will appeal to many people. It delivers dragons and sorcery in a world threatened by an existential evil. In short, it’s epic epic fantasy.