The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon has been on my TBR for a really long time. I’ve very much a bandwagon reader; if everyone is reading something, I don’t want to be left out. Add to that the fact that The Priory of the Orange tree is a highly regarded epic fantasy and famously has a wlw couple; that sounds like the perfect book for me. Still, I hesitated. It’s a massive tome. I’m not usually afraid of a big book—I thrive on long series, and Les Misérables is one of my favorite novels—the sheer size of this one was enough to make me delay reading it again and again, especially since I’m the sort of reader who finishes what I start even if I hate it. Eight hundred pages is a big commitment. So was it worth it?
What’s it about?
The Priory of the Orange Tree tells the story of a world besieged by fire-breathing wyrms. One side of the world despises all dragons and believes that as long as there is a living descendent of their first king on the throne, the dreaded and deadly Nameless One cannot reawaken. The other draws a distinction between the fire-breathing dragons and the ones of wind and water that they worship, but fears the Nameless One as much. We follow four major protagonists: a member of a shadowy religion who has been tasked with protecting the queen until she bears a daughter to continue the line, the queen’s banished childhood best friend, a would-be dragon-rider who endangered her country for her own ambition, and a disgraced Alchymist.
What’d I think?
In short, yes. It is worth the read. The worldbuilding is exceptional. The best fantasy stories create a world that feels real, and Shannon absolutely manages that. It takes some work to figure it all out, particularly the geography, but that’s true of most epic fantasies. There are multiple countries at play, all of which have their own customs, religions, governments, and treaties. There’s a complex interplay between the various locales even at the start of the novel, before any of our protagonists have mingled. It makes the world feel more real that the cast isn’t split between “good guys” and “bad guys.” There are people who ultimately fall on the same side who have such drastically different religious views that they would never speak to each other much less work together. There are people who are basically good but who do terrible things for their own interest or because they’re too blind or scared to see beyond their own noses. There are people doing the right thing but whose motives are misunderstood and who are therefore treated as traitors and enemies. Yes, there’s a big bad who is typical of epic fantasy, down to the kill him and his minions dissipate, but until the end he’s a vague threat that facilitates the other, more personal and more interesting, conflicts.
It’s generally true that in any story with multiple POV protagonists, some will be more interesting than the others. There weren’t any characters that I hated, but it’s definitely true that I liked Ead’s chapters far more than the others, and I missed her while everyone else was doing their thing It’s true that I tend to prefer characters at the heart of the city more than those out in the slower, more rural areas; it’s also typical of me to get far more invested in the queer characters than the others, so in that sense it’s perhaps not surprising that I far preferred Ead to Loth or Tané, but it was still a marked preference. That being said, I can still acknowledge that the other characters are interesting and fit together well to show the scope of the world.
Through them we see many different regions, different faiths, and different angles to the issue of the waking Nameless One. And I do like that Shannon gave us a diverse group. Part of creating a believable world is creating a wealth of characters of different backgrounds. It simply doesn’t make sense when we see across continents but only ever find straight, white, young, able-bodied people. The Priory of the Orange Tree has more POC as leads than white characters: Loth is Black, and while there is no “Asia” in The Priory of the Orange Tree, exactly, it can be reasonably assumed Tané is intended to be East Asian. I’d initially assumed Ead to be (mapped onto our real world) South Asian, but Shannon indicates on her tumblr that she’s Black/Middle Eastern. Niclays is an old man, and he and Ead are both queer.
That brings me to one hesitancy I have with this novel. I love that Shannon attempted to create a society free from discrimination. Well, not all discrimination, but our discrimination. It is understood that these are societies without racism, sexism, or homophobia. They have their other hangups—a major one being that not aligning with the dominant religion is often a death sentence; another being xenophobia in regards to foreigners—but those are purportedly not amongst them. I say purportedly because, despite the way it looks on the surface, some sexism and homophobia certainly got in there subtextually.
Queen Sabran, for instance, is a queen. She is powerful and she has highly ranked women around her in the same positions as the men. However, she is also a walking womb. Because she is believed to be the descendant of her country’s Saint, protecting them from the Nameless One by virtue of her blood, the pressure on her is less about ruling her country and more about producing a daughter to keep the blood protection going for another generation. When she becomes pregnant, those around her immediately start caring more for her unborn fetus than for her. The founding myth of Sabran’s country also smacks of sexism. In their telling, their Saint won over his bride and slew the Nameless One before returning in triumph, when in actuality he was summarily rejected and his “bride”—who never in fact married him—was the one to face and defeat the monster.
It is also true that, despite homosexuality apparently being no big deal (to the point that the gendered words “husband” and “wife” have been swapped for the more neutral “companion”), every single queer relationship we see in The Priory of the Orange Tree is forbidden. Social rank, not homosexuality, is always given as the reason, but it’s still a pattern. Niclays’ lover was married when they met, so they had to keep their relationship secret. Ead is a foreigner and a convert, not to mention of lower class, so her relationship with Sabran is enough to get her banished when it is uncovered. It’s not stated, but it’s also abundantly clear that even without the other considerations Ead could not be the queen’s companion because, as a woman, she would be unable to impregnate the queen.
It’s not enough to take away from such an interesting, nuanced novel, but it is frustrating that even a novel that makes such blatant, active decisions to be more accepting and inclusive still gets caught up in unconscious bias. It’s a frustrating truth of our world that so many injustices are baked into everyday life that we don’t even notice it, and it’s almost impossible to imagine a society without them.
The length didn’t end up being an issue. Yes, The Priory of the Orange Tree is large. Yes, it can take a bit to get into it because of all the foreign names and places. But that’s true of any epic fantasy. The Priory of the Orange Tree looks ridiculous because it is a stand-alone novel and we are used to fantasy being parceled out. When you really look at the size of most epic fantasies? The Lord of the Rings? A Game of Thrones? They’re massive. You can’t create a whole new world and tell a good story in it in just a few pages. The shorter the book, the less involved the world can be, and that is simply not possible for a novel like this. It needed those eight hundred pages, so it used them and used them to good effect.
The pacing in The Priory of the Orange Tree isn’t perfect: sometimes it will introduce a question and answer it on the same page rather than planting the seed earlier and allowing it to grow, but on the whole I’m satisfied.
What’s the verdict?
Once you start reading The Priory of the Orange Tree, its length becomes far less alarming. It’s a complex story set in a complex world and populated with complex characters. It catches the reader’s attention and holds it. I loved the characters, the romance, the dragons, and all of it. Like all epic fantasies, it’s not an easy read; it takes some legwork to figure out who everyone is and what the different countries believe and the conflicts between them, but once you have that under you it’s a very rewarding read. I don’t know that it’s necessarily the novel that would make someone who dislikes epic fantasy come around to it, but if you like the genre this is certainly an excellent pick for you, particularly if you’re looking for ones with women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ characters in leading roles.
If you want another epic fantasy novel with a diverse cast that crosses multiple countries and regions, give Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse a try. It’s a bit more violent than The Priory of the Orange Tree, but it is excellent.
Maybe you just want dragon books. Cornelia Funke’s Dragon Rider was a childhood favorite of mine, and in the last year or so I came across Burn by Patrick Ness, which is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. They’re not exactly for the same sort of reader as The Priory of the Orange Tree, but they do have dragons and I loved them.
I’ve started compiling a list of fantasy and sci-fi novels with wlw relationships. Here’s what I’ve found recently: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst, Ash by Malinda Lo, King of Scars* by Leigh Bardugo, Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cahsore, The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza by Shaun David Hutchinson, and One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston.
*(spoiler) For those of you who’ve read Rule of Wolves and are contesting this inclusion, I’m counting Nadia and Tamar here, not Nina and Hanne. Nina/Hanne isn’t actually a wlw relationship, although it appears to be at first. Hanne is a trans man, and I want to make it clear that I’m not erasing that.