The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon (a favourite author of mine), was one of my most anticipated reads of 2019. It contains all my favourite things after all:
1) Lots and lots of pages…!
*My arms are so much stronger after reading this, no lie.*
3) Complex female character narrators (yay!) with the bonus of an f/f romance *fist pump for diversity!*
I counted down the months, weeks then days until I finally got my hands on this 830 paged beauty, and when its gorgeous cover was in my hands, I disappeared from the internet and dived in!
So, did it live up to my expectations? Eh, I’ll be honest with you – it didn’t. Read on to find out why!
A world divided.
A queendom without an heir.
An ancient enemy awakens.
The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.
Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.
Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.
Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.
Priory has a lot of different point of view characters, each with their own missions that eventually bind together with one aim.
In the West, we have Ead, a mage in training and a member of the Priory who is on a secret mission to protect Queen Sabran from attempts on her life, despite believing that everything that she stands for is a lie. There’s Loth, Queen Sabran’s best friend who is sent away for political reasons on a diplomatic suicide mission, but ends up learning a lot more than he bargained for about the history of dragons and the myths surrounding them.
Then in the East, we have Tane, a dragon rider in training as she learns about flying techniques and her mysterious past, and finally Niclays, an alchemist and alcoholic still struggling with the loss of his partner while pondering the secret to immortality.
As Wyverns rise and all signs point to the most dangerous dragon in history ‘The Nameless One’ returning, the characters get sucked into an ageless battle and a race against time to defeat the fire-breather before he takes over the world.
The worldbuilding in Priory is really quite fascinating!
The main crux is Eastern versus Western politics and religion, which has developed differently due to views on dragons. While the West believe all dragons are evil because they’ve only had experience with the volcanic and destructive Wyverns, the East believe that their dragons are the equivalent of Gods and that being picked to become a dragon rider is the highest honour. On the religion front, this world is built around the history of Galian Berethnet who banished the worst dragon known in history, ‘The Nameless One’ and rescued the Princess Cleoilind. The West believes in this story, and also that Queen Sabran is the direct descendant and that as long as her line continues, they will be safe from the Dragon’s return. The East, however, have a very different version of the tale in which Cleoilind kicks some serious ass (you go, girl)!
I loved that Samantha Shannon did so much research on dragon myth and mythology for her novel.
She decided on quite a traditional route (but also put her own spin on things), having Western dragons linked with fire and destruction, while Eastern dragons have an affinity with water. Western dragons also have wings, while Eastern dragons gain their flying power from a jewel on the brow of their head, which I thought was really cool! What did disappoint me slightly though, is while there was a lot of interesting talk about dragons, they didn’t seem to actually get much active page time? All the action scenes with them seemed to be over very quickly, and they also didn’t have particularly distinct personalities.*
*Picture me having a 4yr old tantrum and scowling like a trooper at the lack of dragon war scenes.
Shannon’s descriptive writing is always sublime.
I could close my eyes, pick a random page and guarantee that whatever my hand landed on would be a sentence of liquid gold. Shannon not only has a way with words but a love of words too, and it pours out of her.
With Priory, however, I did think that the balance was slightly off. It felt like there was a lot of passive description and not enough action. It was almost like Shannon got so into her zone that she lost me along the way. A lot of the names, histories and cultures almost ended up feeling more self-indulgent than actually adding to the richness of the world for me. I also felt very emotionally removed from the story because of the passive tone.
The pacing of this novel was…not great.
I wouldn’t say that I felt bored at any points, however, I did keep regularly thinking ‘this needs to move on a bit’. I think it’s really important with long books (and I do read a lot of them!) to have lots of mini crescendo throughout that then slowly build to an intense finale. With Priory, everything felt very much on one level, and even though there were a lot of twists and turns, it took so long to get to them that I felt a little deflated! In addition, the final fight seemed to be over in a blink**, despite so much of the novel building towards it. The plans also went far too smoothly for my liking, and a lot of points felt convenient!
** Picture me double scowling at the lack of dragon badassery war scenes.
The characters in Priory were a bit of a mixed bag for me, although yay for them being diverse!
I absolutely loved Ead who is a helper in the royal household (but also a secret mage). She’s an outsider having come from the East, and others regularly look down on her, but damn, if she doesn’t hold herself with dignity. She’s also stuck in a very awkward moral conundrum because she’s been tasked with protecting a queen that believes in everything she’s fighting against.***
***Also, I’m not gunna lie guys, I feel like Ead held this whole fantasy crew together, without her, they would have been colliding into each other and roasting marshmallows in the fire of the Nameless One sobbing at their fate.
Queen Sabran was also a wonderfully complex character, her entire purpose is to keep the kingdom safe and to do that she needs to marry and give birth to a daughter, but she’s never wanted to marry and is absolutely terrified of childbirth. Sabran is a pretty stuck up and privileged character to begin with, however, through a tentative friendship with Ead (who tells her the truth rather than what she wants to hear) Sabran slowly opens up, and you see the humour and vulnerability underneath.
In comparison, I didn’t take to Tane the dragon rider at all and found her very bland (how that is possible when she rides a dragon I DON’T EVEN KNOW), and while Niclays was also a complex and dislikable character, his chapters always felt slow.
I also have to give a shoutout to two side characters that were actually my favourite – jolly, happy easygoing Kit, and steadfast loyal Margaret, who were always in the background, supporting from a distance! I also wish I could have spent more page time with the lovely cinnamon roll that is Loth!
Overall, Priory was a real mix for me.
The worldbuilding was clever and I loved how the interpretation of myth and legend played such a big part in the story. On the other hand, the story felt quite passive with little action, the pacing was problematic, and I had mixed thoughts on the characters. Also, THE LACK OF KICKASS DRAGON SCENES, SERIOUSLY, WHERE WERE THEY?!?!****
****Literally toppling over with the weight of my scowl into a fiery pit now. K, bye.
Ultimately, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with Priory because I just expected so much more??? Also, I think the fact that this was Shannon’s first high fantasy debut did show because it was rough around the edges.
I wouldn’t let my thoughts put you off though because this book is getting SO MUCH LOVE!!! Here are some more positive raving reviews you can check out!
Overall Impression: 3.5/5
Writing Style 3/5
Character Development 4/5
Would I recommend this book? I would recommend other fantasy books first!
Have you read or are you planning to read Priory of the Orange Tree? Do you enjoy loooong books? Have you been slightly let down by a highly anticipated read in 2019?
Let me know in the comments!