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.
“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).