What’s this? A standalone fantasy novel? Not party of a trilogy or a googolplexilogy or whatever? No five years between books and when the new installment arrives it’s a prequel? I immediately asked my superiors at MojoFiction to investigate.
They declined, citing extreme laziness.
Nevertheless, it’s true. The Priory of the Orange Tree is a fantasy tale confined to one long book (really, though, if it you think it’s long, you obviously haven’t read any Tad Williams). Here, author Samantha Shannon shows everyone that it’s possible to tell a complete fantasy story with just one entry. Of course, your agreement with that depends on how much you, the reader, becomes invested in the fictional world.
The world of the novel is both familiar and original. A disclaimer at the beginning informs the reader that the author has raided real cultures and myths of the past to inform her world. But it’s how she bends it to her fantasy setting that makes it feel unique. The world is mostly divided between east and west. The east is reflective of Asian cultures while the west is conglomeration of European(ish) cultures. Each side has it’s own customs, religion, and culture, which feature heavily in the story. Choices are made based on cultural and religious leanings. But this is fantasy, so, yes, there are plenty of monsters and magic and lots of dragons. It’s well done.
The Priory of the Orange Tree follows four different perspectives as the known world finds itself threatened by a thousand-year-old evil. Ead, a southerner currently serving in the court of the powerful Queen of Inys; Niclays Roos, an exile rotting away in a trading enclave on the island of the eastern Seiikinese kingdom; Atleloth, a lord of Inys who embarks on a journey into the heart of a hostile kingdom; and Tané, girl of meager beginnings who rises to the heights of a dragonrider, only to fall again.
(For the record, the Eastern dragons in this book are the coolest dragons ever.)
I’ll dispense with any more plot discussion. The main players are far more important anyway. That’s how you make a solo fantasy effort work, by creating rich characters. Samantha Shannon excels in that endeavor here, especially with the characters of Ead and Tané. I could have read an entire book that focused on just one of them and would have been happy. Ead has the most depth, mostly because she has the most secrets, but Tané has more to lose (and gain) and so her development turns into a satisfying arc. Never mind, it’s a tie between the two characters. The other two storytellers are interesting enough, but feel more like they are there to move the story along more than anything else.
Conspiracy theory: Booklist called this a “feminist fantasy.” And it is. Is it a wonder that the male characters are not half as interesting as their female counterparts?
On that subject, the novel at times strays into contemporary social justice territory. That’s fine when such points of view are character-related. (I’d love to discuss an old episode of Bones that does this to the nth degree, completely ruining what could have been a strong and thoughtful message – but I digress…) The Priory of the Orange Tree occasionally lets messaging get away from the characters and their stories. It’s often a precarious balance when you want to make a specific social point.
That shouldn’t deter you (or maybe it will entice you?), because The Priory of the Orange Tree is an incredibly enjoyable fantasy. I’m going to hold on to my hardcover version and re-read some day.
If I had an actual, legitimate complaint, it would be that the author clearly fleshed out this world of hers, but I didn’t get to spend enough time in it. She so successfully drew me in that I wanted to be more immersed in certain parts of it. In other words, this could easily have been a lengthy trilogy and it would have worked just fine. But I have to commend the author (and the publisher) for realizing that, in the end, the story didn’t need it.
A really good story. If I gave out stars I would give out, like, lots of them to this book.