'The Priory of the Orange Tree' by Samantha Shannon
Disclaimer: On my blog, I do not write book 'reviews' or offer star ratings. I believe that every published work has something to offer and that, though I personally may not like a particular book, that does not mean it does not hold any value. On this blog I write book 'discussions' - where I focus mostly on the parts I do like, discussing any themes, writing techniques and other aspects that interest me and that I want to discuss. This then means that these posts will contain spoilers so fair warning. Summarised: these are book discussions, not book reviews.
So, let's start with the only two things I knew about this book going in:
1. That it was being hailed as the feminist The Lord of the Rings and
2. That it was absolutely massive. (Try 804 pages)
Now, I absolutely love fantasy and Priory (I am going to shorten it to this from now on because, like the book itself, the title is rather long for a blog post) was constantly popping up as a recommended read. Every time I ventured into Waterstones, the artwork on the cover always drew me to it - yellow and orange, with a shiny, metallic blue dragon curled round a tall tower building. I am also a gal who has always been interested in dragons and mythical creatures, my love being fuelled for both by the 2008 BBC television series Merlin.
So yes, Priory upon first glance seemed like the perfect book for someone like me. I also do enjoy The Lord of the Rings, and also class myself as a feminist. So both my own piqued interest and the recommendations of others meant Priory has always just sat in the back of my mind, in my subconscious to-be-read pile. However, as point 2 outlines, it is an absolutely massive book. I've experienced, on and off, a bit of a reading rut, and have been desperately trying to find that book that kicks me back into the world of books.
And, I can very happily say, Priory was that book for me.
Now, I didn't get into it immediately. It took me a few attempts to just sit, and read. Priory dumps you right in the middle of this fantasy world with so many characters and an entire way of life set up - it doesn't really give you the run-down when you first enter its world. Sometimes that can be off-putting to readers and, since finishing and recommending this book to all my friends, the ones that took me up on it and did decide to give it a go have commented the same thing. It's very intriguing, very well-written, but it just takes you a while to get into it and actually understand what's going on.
I described it as a 'slow burn' which is very funny to me now because, upon completing it, I followed Samantha Shannon on Twitter, and 'slow burn' seems to be a phrase that follows her and she herself uses (although, in reference to her characters just taking the entirety of the book to get together).
But once you push past the need to understand what's going on and just let Samantha Shannon take you where she wants to, you slowly become enthralled in this world of dragon riders and mages. Every chapter sees a new narrator, and all their choices soon start to affect one another until they ultimately cross paths (and yes, that's a slow burn, too). I guess think Love Actually, although I've actually never seen that movie, but I know it's the same premise in that you see different people's lives and their choices affect one another until they eventually meet in the end. I don't know if many people have compared Priory to Love Actually, but I guess that's where we are today.
Now I want to make my stance clear because I do feel that it sounds like I'm complaining about the length of this book - by the end, I wanted more. 2020, as we know, was shambolic to say the least, but discovering Samantha Shannon's writing was personally one of my highlights from the year. In fact, I'd say Priory was my best book of 2020. So if you're currently reading it or thinking about it (again, I hope you've read my disclaimer at the top - there WILL be spoilers) but are put off by the size then take it from me - push through, you'll eventually get to grips with the characters and the world, and you'll eventually become immersed and will find it difficult to put down (yay, we're at the cliches portion already but they exist for a reason, right?).
One reason it's so hard to put down is all the cliffhangers and plot twists. I mean, as an English Literature & Creative Writing graduate, I pride myself on being able to spot most plot twists and figure most things out but man. One of my favourite plot twists was finding out that Kalyba was actually the original Berethnet. Talk about mind blown. I mean, I did start to catch on as the plot progressed that Kalyba was more than just the Lady of the Woods but I did not foresee just how important she was.
Which brings me back to an earlier point and a theme.
Feminism. Now, like I say, I class myself as a feminist. People know that, so people tend to recommend to me a lot of books that class themselves as such. However, I'm not into try-hard obvious feminism, if you know what I mean.
This book wasn't feminist because it had badass women characters who could ride dragons and cut down ten men with a sword (although I enjoyed the featuring of both very much). For one thing, it wasn't try hard at all. All the female characters in this book were so different yet so dimensional and strong in their own individual ways. Plus, they were strong just because they were - not because they were female. Samantha Shannon's world is one of equality - gender isn't even a thing commented on in the book, and I loved it.
Surprisingly, the book also made me realise my own internalised prejudice. One line was all it took for me to notice. It was so simple, yet worked so well. When making reference to 'the guard', the next sentence lead on and identified the guard as 'she'. Now I know this is hardly revolutionary or ground-breaking, but to me it really made me stop and think. When I'm reading and a background character is introduced by their profession, say a guard, I realised that I do automatically assume that that guard is a man. And I'm sure if you think about it too, you could think of a few instances where that may be the case for you too. What added to my assumption was the fact that this was a fantasy, with a Queendom, who had to have an heir (although I'll go onto that two, and again it's related to this topic). Automatically, my mind jumps to what I know of fantasy, especially when borrowing historical facts and the fact of the matter was that back in the times of castles and knights and Kings and Queens, the guards and knights were all male. So yes, see how powerful just a little detail can be? In my own book I'm writing, I have female characters who are in powerful positions too, not just Queen, so that's why it took me so aback when I realised when reading how my mind was automatically assuming that the guards were men.
A book being labelled 'feminist' can often put me off because I really think it has to be done well, and this one was - but by the fact it didn't point it out or draw attention to it. Every woman had a different purpose, a different characterisation, a different strength - honestly, it was so good and refreshing to see.
Now onto the Queen needing an heir part. I know so many people who are put off stories of kingdoms and royalty, purely because of this trope. Been there, done that, seen it one too many times on TV.
Yet this one was entirely difference. For one, yes the Queen did need to produce an heir, but a daughter not a son.
I'm not going to lie, when I first read the blurb about a Queendom needing an heir and before I knew that it was a female heir, I did do a bit of groan myself. I was one of those people who couldn't be bothered with the same old trope of a Queen having to produce a male heir to continue on the family name. So it gave me a bit of a jolt upright when I read female heir, and I automatically became a lot more invested.
What was also cool about this was that it was all related to the religion of this world. The Berethnet line, a line of Queens all with long dark hair and green eyes, believed that as long as they lived, The Nameless One, a dragon so fearful and that brought about the Grief of Ages for many before being banished under The Abyss, would remain asleep under there. As the book progresses, we of course find out that The Nameless One's followers have been awakening, slowly, and that the religion that the Berethnet kingdom was built upon slowly starts to crumble as more and more is discovered of how The Nameless One was truly banished and bound.
The mentioning of dragons leads me on to another point. One thing that I in particular love, is an incredibly wise but scary dragon. Few authors can describe a dragon in a way that's truly terrifying but also believable, and this takes me back to the point that Priory is often likened with The Lord of the Rings. Specifically I'm thinking of Smaug in The Hobbit. I remember reading that passage when Bilbo is hiding amongst Smaug's treasure and having actual goose bumps at the dragon's description and dialogue. Both made him terrifying but smart, a figure of awe and fear rather than just something from a fairytale. In Priory, I had a similar moment when reading of The Nameless One's right-hand man (or dragon) Fyredel.
For one, Fyredel is a pretty cool name for a dragon. For two, he is the dragon represented by the book's cover, wrapped around one of the castle's tall tower buildings. That scene when Fyredel calls for Queen Sabran to come out and face him, with Ead on the other side protecting her the whole time - literal goose bumps I LOVE a smart, all-seeing, all-sensing dragon. Man I'm a nerd but I love it.
I have to actually share an extract of the scene, because it was just THAT good. It not only showed Fyredel to be a truly frightening enemy, but also showcased how badass Ead is. For context in case there actually is anyone reading this who hasn't read the book and who also doesn't care about spoilers - Ead is a mage, or a sorceress, sent to the kingdom of Virtudom, Sabran Berethnet's Queendom, by the Priory to protect her. They all know the religion of Virtudom to be false, that the belief that Sabran's mother Cleolind was weak and only wanted to marry the knight Galian was false. That Galian himself was the coward, not Cleolind (as an aside, I also loved this idea too, that most believed the woman to be the weak one when in actuality she was a mage and was the one to banish The Nameless One after all).
Ead's duty is to protect Sabran until she produces an heir, thus ensuring peace in Virtudom. Of course, as she grows closer and closer to Sabran, new feelings become apparent, and they take far too long to finally be together but anyway that's a whole other thing entirely.
So, when Fyredel comes to Sabran to announce that The Nameless One will arise from his slumber, Ead's duty is finally to be fulfilled. And man was. it. cool.
Queen Sabran, though perhaps dulled by the likes of mage Ead and dragon rider Tané, was still a pretty strong female character. When Fyredel comes and taunts her, knowing the idea that she is untouchable by dragon purely because of her bloodline is mere myth, Sabran still steps out to meet him. Of course, part of her bravery would be believing the myth but still, so did her people, so she had to face him in order for them to still have faith. Ead of course, not from Virtudom and not believing their religion whole-heartedly, knows that it is only a matter of time before Fyredel unleashes his rage, and fire, on Sabran, killing her where she stands. In a race against time, Ead jumps from building to building finding a high enough tower. Of course, and also classic in stories of kingdoms and knights, magic is not understood, and so Ead has had to keep it quiet in order to stay safe. And yet, again the classic trope, she's been protecting Sabran the whole time despite the kingdom's opinions on magic (again, if you were a fan of the TV series Merlin that I mentioned earlier, you'd definitely also find yourself a fan of the Priory there are a lot of similarities.)
Using her siden, a word I was unfamiliar with before but which originates from Old Norse and is basically just magic, Ead casts a protective spell around Sabran just as Fyredel goes to torch her. Here's that extract from the scene (you all know I have a tendency to waffle, and I mean this is an 800 page book which I love - I could end up writing well over 800 on it myself):
'When Fyredel closed his jaws, all was silent. Black vapours billowed from the tower, clearing slowly. Ead waited, heart tight as a drum, until she saw the figure in the smoke.
Sabran Berethnet was unscathed.
Fyredel did not acknowledge her. Not this time. He was looking at the blackened stone, and the spotless circle around Sabran.
A perfect circle.
His nostrils flared. His pupils thinned to slits. He had seen a warding before. Ead stood like a statue as his merciless gaze roved, searching for her, while Sabran remained still. When he looked towards the belfry, he sniffed, and Ead knew that he had caught her scent. She stepped out of the shadows beneath the clock face.
Fyredel showed his teeth. Every spine on his back flicked up, and a long his rattled on his tongue. Holding his gaze, Ead unsheathed her knife and pointed it at him across the divide.
'Here I am,' she said softly. 'Here I am.'
The High Western let out a scream of rage.
- The Priory of the Orange Tree, Samantha Shannon, (pp. 114-115)
I meaaaaan - goose bumps. I didn't want to include the entire passage but this gives you the jist of the wist dragon and the power of Ead. I loved every single bit of this scene, and every bit of the way it was written. Now, something I loved doing in uni, and something that I was particularly skilled at, was taking scenes in books and comparing them in their similarities and differences. The Hobbit, like I mentioned earlier, immediately springs to mind with it's depiction of a wise, human-like dragon.
'He was just about to step out on to the floor when he caught a sudden thin and piercing ray of red from under the drooping lid of Smaug's left eye. He was only pretending to sleep! He was watching the tunnel entrance! Hurriedly Bilbo stepped back and blessed the luck of his ring. Then Smaug spoke.
"Well, thief! I smell you and I feel your air. I hear your breath. Come along! Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!"'
'Bilbo was now beginning to feel really uncomfortable. Whenever Smaug's roving eye, seeking for him in the shadows, flashed across him, he trembled, and an unaccountable desire seized hold of him to rush out and reveal himself and tell all the truth to Smaug.'
- The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, (pp. 257-260)
I think it's easy to see why Priory has so often been compared to Lord of the Rings, not only for the fantasy aspects but also the dragon depictions. For me, the inclusion of a smart-talking dragon was always going to be a winner, and to be honest a feminist Lord of the Rings without being a tropey, obvious, in your face feminist book, was also well needed on the book market and no wonder it's been such a success.
Now I've spoken a lot about the dragons, Samantha Shannon's characterisation of actual humans is something to be commented on as well. Like I said earlier, the story is narrated by several voices, all of whose choices link in some way until they all come together in the end. However, you'd think there would be a clear 'good guys bad guys' thing, where there are characters you absolutely despise and ones you love. However, Shannon's depictions were actually so much more real than that and actually represented genuine people - and what I mean by that is, you couldn't really decide whether you did love them or hate them. There was no character that had only good qualities - there good and bad were all on show for the reader to see. This made them much more dimensional and meant I, the reader, had much more complicated feelings toward them. Prime example I can think of is Doctor Niclays Roos.
I should hate the guy. But I don't.
Sometimes, I wanted him to get his karma. Other times, I felt sorry for him. His relationship with Sabran was a hard one because, she too was complicated - I didn't always like her, but in the end I realised she was a very strong female character in a much subtler way. However, Roos and Sabran did not get along, but Shannon showed you, through dual narration, that both had a reason for their choices and it was hard to hate one or the other.
There are a lot of characters in Shannon's world that didn't get the best of endings and that's all I really have to say about that. Truyde. Sulyard. Kit. (Especially Kit) (Kit is a reminder to always tell people you love them before it's too late) (*cries*).
Now, as promised and in true Stephanie style, this post has become longer than the book itself, so I'm going to wrap it up here or we will be here for a very long time. Seriously, I've not even scratched the surface on all there is to say about this book but, again, we'd literally be here for about a week just getting through it.
If you do find yourself wanting to know more of my random, weird thoughts on the book, then I'm going to be talking about it soon on my friends' podcast. So, if you're not sick of hearing me waffle about dragons and badass female characters, then watch out for that one (I'll post it on Twitter). And for those of you who have read me before, it's the same podcast I featured on when talking about The Song of Achilles - blog post here - but this time you'll all be able to hear my wonderful, soothing voice (I apologise in advance.)
To wrap things up then: The Priory of the Orange Tree was my favourite book of 2020, and Samantha Shannon was my favourite author to discover. I have now ordered The Bone Season which is a seven parter so here's hoping I like that (if you've read it, let me know what you thought of it please). Although it's a long book, the dragons and the strong, female characters more than make up for it, and with a new plot twist at the end of every chapter, you really don't notice how long the book is and by the time you're finished, you find yourself wishing there was more.
Thanks as always for reading. There's a lot of books I've got my eyes on this year, and I'm also making some serious headway with my own novel so this year's looking pretty exciting for me - and I'll be sure to document it all on the blog.
Stay safe, happy and healthy. Bye!