The Priory of the Orange Tree

Epic fantasy novel about intrigue, warriors and dragons

This was the next set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and I decided to tackle it straightaway during my long flight to Europe. I bought an eBook, but the cover of the hardcopy is exquisite. So if you don’t mind deadlifting every time you turn a page (it is an enormous book), but want to buy a copy, consider the a hardcopy.

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One of our members’ beautiful table setting

“The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon is an epic fantasy novel about a world split between the East and the West. In the East, where dragons are revered and wise creatures of the sea, a young girl called Tané is training to be a dragonrider. On the eve before her studies and abilities are put to the test, she discovers something forbidden and is forced to choose between herself and the law. In the West, where dragons are firebreathing wyrms who bring disease and destruction, another young woman called Ead is rising through the ranks at court in the land of Inys. Charged with protecting the devout and imperious Queen Sabran, Ead keeps her identity and her skills a secret. However, as Ead grows closer to Sabran, and attacks by assassins increase in number and ferocity, the secrets become harder to keep. Meanwhile, there is one secret that cannot be ignored: the impending return of the Nameless One.

There were lots of things that were great about this book. Ead was an incredibly enjoyable character and I loved her storyline, her character growth, her history and her abilities. I think it was pretty obvious that Shannon did too, because Ead’s story does dominate the book. I really liked the diversity of relationships, and I absolutely adored Tané’s journey towards being a dragonrider. Shannon’s writing was strong, and her worldbuilding was a creative spin on traditional dragon myths around the world. I thought the religion in Inys built around virtues and a creation story that are interpreted elsewhere in other countries was an insightful look at how Christianity has evolved and changed.

I hate to say it, because it’s a familiar gripe of mine with fantasy novels, but this book was too long. I reached the end of my patience with this book at about page 600 of its 800-odd pages. As much as I like Ead, she really did overshadow the rest of the story, and her adventures with Sabran and Inys felt much more filled-out than Tané’s journey. This may have reflected Shannon’s confidence with the subject-matter, as Tané’s part of the world was clearly modelled on countries in East Asia, whereas Ead’s story was inspired by Western European culture. In comparison, Tané’s plot felt like a very rushed deus ex machina, and across the board I felt like Shannon leaned heavily on determinism and the repeating of historical events rather than interesting moral dilemmas, ingenuity or an extremely well-thought-out plan.

I have nothing to say about young Lord Loth’s point of view chapters, they were the most dull and left almost no impression on me at all. Niclays on the other hand actively annoyed me, and his role in the books was baffling all the way up to the climax (which, after an inordinate amount of foreshadowing, was over in two chapters). He was one of the few morally ambiguous characters, but with not nearly the subtlety of Kalyba who was far more interesting. I legitimately could not understand why Laya stuck by him throughout the end. His motivations (greed and a lost lover) just did not justify his choices whatsoever, and he wasn’t much of a counterweight for either Ead or Tané, even tempered by Loth’s banal chapters. Considering he only seemed to exist to bridge the gap between East and West, I honestly would have axed Niclays altogether and invested that time into Tané’s origin story which was itself very flimsy. I also wish that Shannon had explored her fascinating giant trees a little more. Instead of developing lore, legend and how these ancient lifeforms influenced the events unfolding today, they end up being little more than plot points and I felt that the opportunity was wasted.

A book with plenty of highlights that could have used some firm culling (of Niclays).

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Red Sister

Fantasy novel about assassin nuns

This was a set book for the feminist fantasy book club I am in, and broke the trend a little by being written by a man. I have to say, it wasn’t a particularly enticing cover, and it was subject to significant ridicule before we even had the meeting. I mean, it really is so bad, I’m tempted to start a new category on my blog for ugly book covers. Needless to say, my expectations were not high when I bought it for my Kobo.

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Contender for the worst book cover ever? 

“Red Sister” by Mark Lawrence is a fantasy (and kind of science fiction) novel about a girl called Nona who is taken from her home, placed on a cart with other children and taken to a city to be sold. The children are inspected for physical signs for their potential to have the traits of each of the original tribes: hunska, marjal, quantal and gerant. Her dark eyes, dark hair and incredible reflexes suggest hunska blood, and Nona is sold to a fight hall. However, after a violent incident, Nona is sentenced to death and is rescued at the last minute by Abbess Glass of the convent Sweet Mercy. Nona is enrolled to become a novice and train to become an assassin. Far behind her peers in her literacy and social skills, and with her past threatening to catch up with her, Nona must learn to walk the path before it is too late.

 

This is a fast-paced, immersive read that mixes elements of fantasy, science fiction and your classic, young adult magic school. I really enjoyed the world-building in this book, and the concept of a world completely frozen except for a thin strip along the equator kept warm by a mysterious red moon. The idea of a planet long ago settled by humans who have made it their own and who have special abilities is one that I have read in Anne McCaffrey, C J Cherryh and even Patrick Ness‘ books – and it is a premise that I simply never get tired of. Lawrence is a strong writer who is able to explain some of his complicated magical concepts, and allude to technology that, while the characters don’t understand, the reader recognises, in a clear way. I also liked how much uncomplicated queer content there was in this book, and Lawrence’s handling of relationships.

I think the thing I struggled with was the plot itself. The timeline was a little all over the place, sometimes doubling back, sometimes skipping ahead years at a time. While the theme of “Nona is under threat” was constant, the nature and source of that threat was in constant flux. I felt like the trial at Sweet Mercy was confusing and a little pointless, with Abbess Glass as opaque, unpredictable and infuriating as Dumbledore. The book also seemed divided in two with the demons from Nona’s past forgotten, and a new threat to the mysterious shipheart introduced very late in the story. I think all the elements were there, but they just felt like they needed a little reshuffling or something. Honestly, I just wanted to know more about the original tribes and the red moon, and less about who was trying to attack Nona at any given second for no discernible reason.

This was a very easy book to read, and there were plenty of things I liked about it, but I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll read the second book in the series.

 

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Bluethroat Morning

Mystery novel about a troubled author

Content warning: suicide

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Bluethroat Morning” by Jacqui Lofthouse is a mystery novel about a retiring schoolteacher called Harry Bliss who, six years on, is still mourning the death of his wife Alison. Haunted by her lingering fame as a model, as well as her suicide in a small Norfolk village while working on her new book, Harry is unable to face learning what happened to his wife. When he meets Helen, he is encouraged to visit the village and retrace Alison’s steps to try to understand her, and ultimately himself.

This is a quietly compelling book that explores a multitude of issues ranging from grief, fame, success, marriage, family, depression and what it means to be a woman. Lofthouse has a classic, almost gothic style of writing and juxtaposes the warmth of beauty and life against the cold, bleak backdrop of the Norfolk coastal village. I thought that the first half of the book was particularly strong, and I particularly enjoyed Lofthouse’s exploration of ethical boundaries and forbidden love. I also liked how Alison was portrayed as both otherworldly and human. I also liked that Harry’s indifference was examined as both a strength in his relationship with Alison as well as a weakness. By the end of the book, there was still an intriguing air of mystery around Alison, her life and her motives.

While I understand that the structure of the novel is sort of a quintessential tragedy, the action falling from the climax to the dénouement, I did find the second half of the book to be a little less gripping that the first half. While I understand that there is never a satisfactory resolution when someone has taken their own life, I did feel that some of the elements of the plot were at times a little difficult to connect with. I thought Harry was an interesting choice for a point of view character, and I think I would have liked to have seen a little more of some other perspectives.

A thoughtful and timeless book that explores familiar themes in a fresh way.

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The Underground Railroad

Audiobook alternative history about the Underground Railroad

Content warning: slavery, violence, sexual violence

As I said in a previous review, I’m currently trying to motivate myself to go to the gym by listening to audiobooks only when I am at the gym. I was scrolling through the available books, and this one jumped out at me. I had heard that it had won lots of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and they were more than enough credentials for me to try it out.

The Underground Railroad cover art

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and narrated by Bahni Turpin is an alternative history novel about slavery in the USA. The story is mostly about Cora, a young slave who lives on a plantation in the state of Georgia. When she was very young, Cora’s mother Mabel escaped without her. Left to fend for herself against attempts to steal her tiny plot of land, gang rape and beatings, when Cora is asked by another slave called Caesar to escape with him, she eventually agrees. The Underground Railroad, which Whitehead imagines as a literal railroad underground, takes Cora and Caesar to South Carolina. Given a job and a new life in a new city, Cora must decide which is greater: the cost to stay, or the risk to keep running.

This is a heavy, intense book that reimagines this period of American history and distills it to its essence. Whitehead’s depiction of the underground railroad as an actual railroad was so convincing, that I was most of the way through the book before I asked myself, hang on… This is an incredibly challenging book, and the seemingly never-ending variety of horrors enslaved people were subjected to is very difficult to hear. Cora’s characterisation as a resilient young woman living in her mother’s shadow, and with her mother’s abandonment, was engaging, and I thought that the last few chapters of the book were the best.

The ending really elevated this book for me, and I have to admit that there were parts of the book that did stretch on – especially when Cora was hiding in an in North Carolina, completely dependent with her health slowly ebbing away.  I think that while she was a clear narrator, Turpin had a sardonic, languid style that I felt was sometimes at odds with Cora’s inherent gumption and opportunism. However, it certainly aligned with the parts of the book where Cora was required to stay very still like on the railway, working in the museum and later in the attic.

A well-written, fraught and necessary book with a superb ending.

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The Water Will Come

Non-fiction book about the impact of ocean levels rising

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World” by Jeff Goodell is a non-fiction book about various coastal cities and towns and the impact he predicts rising sea levels will have. Goodell has a particular interest in property, and a lot of his research, analysis and interviews centre on wealthy investors, politicians and property-owners. Goodell visits a number of places around the world to explore how rising sea levels are already impacting the enormous number of people who live on the coast.

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When I read the opening chapter of this book, I thought it was a dystopian novel about a world underwater. However, Goodell only writes the first chapter about that, and the rest of the book is a non-fiction account of high profile interviews primarily about housing. Unfortunately, as a narrative, this book was not particularly compelling. This book is very America-focused, and Goodell spent two chapters talking about Miami and another talking about Alaska. Yes, he did write a bit about Nigeria and the Marshall Islands but this is primarily a Western-centric book about an issue that will disproportionately affect non-Western countries. Island nations like Indonesia, the Maldives and the many Pacific Island countries were just throwaway lines while the reader was left instead to sympathise with the fact that the insanely lucrative practice of flipping houses in Florida may not always be so lucrative.

I didn’t particularly care for the way that Goodell wrote about people of colour either. He uses colonial and outdated terminology, and refers to the “dying languages of Australian aborigines”, “a nearly extinct Aboriginal language” and the Calusa people as being “wiped out”. Even the title of the book is divisive, indicating that Goodell is only interested in the “civilized world”.

A rather one-dimensional take on a global environmental issue, I really wish it had been a dystopian novel. Perhaps a good companion book for “The Mosquito“?

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Body Music

Collection of short graphic stories about love and intimacy

Content warning: sexual themes

I picked this book up from Canty’s Bookshop recently. They have been getting in some great graphic novel stock, and this one caught my eye because the author is the same author behind “Blue is the Warmest Colour” that famously was made into an incredible film.

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“Body Music” by Julie Maroh is a collection of short graphic stories set in the city of Montreal, Canada. Each story explores issues around love between two (or more) people, transcending gender, race and age. Some of the characters feature in more than one vignette, but each story is, for the most part, a standalone story.

Maroh is an exceptional artist with an honest illustrative style that highlights the beauty, the grotesque and the humanity that can be found in everyday life. Maroh has a natural flair for storytelling with each panel a quiet revelation of hope, pain, loneliness, and love. I really loved chapter 14, The Ghost of Illness, chapter 16, In the Heat of the Club. Sait Catherine Street East, and Charlene’s perspective in chapter 6, Fantasies of the Hypothetical. Maroh did an exceptional job depicting her characters with disabilities (which included a wheelchair user, a person who develops blindness and two men who use sign language), and presents sex as something awkward, humorous and tender. I also really enjoyed the diversity of bodies: slim, curvy, freckled, hairy.

While I felt that this was a beautiful book, I felt that there was something missing to tie all the stories together. Maroh is very committed to diversity, in theme as well as in her characters, but I think a side effect of this was that there wasn’t really a strong common thread to unite each vignette. Perhaps if she had intertwined the stories even more, and had more overlap between the characters and their experiences of living and loving Montreal, I may have gotten a stronger sense of the city itself.

A poignant and thought-provoking book full of excellent examples of the storytelling strength of the graphic novel genre.

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The Mosquito

History of the impact of mosquito-borne disease on war

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

“The Mosquito: A human history of our deadliest predator” by Timothy C. Winegard is a non-fiction history of the influence mosquitoes and the diseases that they carry have had on humanity. The book encompasses ancient and modern history, and explores the devastating impact of diseases such as malaria on pivotal historical moments. To make sure you don’t think it’s a book about something else (like I did), this is at heart a military history.

I was really excited to read this book, and I loved the opening. Winegard connects with the reader through the universal experience of being annoyed with a mosquito, and provides a play by play of just exactly how the mosquito’s bite is so irritating. Winegard is certainly very knowledgeable about history, especially military history, and provides a thorough overview of some of the most well-discussed parts of Western history.

Although Winegard’s enthusiasm doesn’t wane as the book progresses, mine certainly did. I was expecting a lot more social and scientific history, and was hoping to read how mosquitoes had shaped our culture and progress. Every time Winegard touched on an area of scientific significance like the decision not to drain the swamps outside Rome until a ridiculously late time and how the mystery of mosquito-borne disease was finally solved, he glossed over the detail. Perhaps it was a question of confidence in the subject-matter, but I really wanted to know how these brilliant scientific minds figured out mosquitoes were the vector for malaria! I reread over that part thinking I’d missed something, but no – it just wasn’t of as much significance to Winegard, who was far more interested in how casualties from disease influenced the outcome of particular wars.

There were also some questionable and likely controversial parts in the book. Probably the most striking was the suggestion that the reason (or at least part of the reason) that African people were sold into slavery was because of genetic blood disorders like sickle cell disease made them more robust against malaria and therefore better workers in the Americas. I think that this would likely not stand up to academic scrutiny, and seems to minimise the reality of racism, greed and racist greed. Margaret Kwateng puts it succinctly in her 2014 paper on race and sickle cell disease: “studies today that try and attribute disparities between the races to genetic differences may be similarly searching for a way to explain inequity in a way that does not selfimplicate”.

A well-written book with some interesting and some challenging ideas by an author whose interests are fundamentally different to mine.

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