We may be small, and we may be young, but we will shake the world for our beliefs.
The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon has been highly demanded by readers all over the world since its announced release. A new high fantasy world with dragons (good and bad), a queendom that rests on a thousand-year old prophecy and the shoulder of its current queen and so many political intrigues you almost lose count.
From this description alone it’s it is not surprising that with this book, Samantha Shannon got praised as ‘the female George R.R. Martin’ – though I have to agree that Shannon is undoubtedly in the same league as Martin, her story is not as dark and merciless as the works of Martin. I personally prefer the illustration of Priory (to shorten the incredible long title of the book) being ‘a feminist successor to The Lord of the Rings’. This is way more fitting in my eyes since Priory easily deserves to be called a true equal to the iconic and legendary series by Tolkien. I’m obviously not the only one with this notion, since one of the reviews so fittingly says ‘Move over, Tolkien – you had a good run, but it’s high time fantasy had a Queen’. I’m going to leave this here. Shannon shows with this work that she is an expert in world-building – not only does she create a whole new world with different countries and a set of characters that you ultimately claim a spot in your heart, but there are also so many more aspects she took care of: several religions, tales of old, legends and events.
At this point I have to note how remarkable it is that Shannon used inspirations from different parts of the world – think about the aforementioned events and legends, the naming of places in her world, etc. – and built something new. Still, those aspects are visible throughout the story. They might feel familiar and known but there’s no way to mistake them as their ‘real world inspiration’. Shannon does a great job with taking something we know and turning it into something else, something new, without demolishing it so it might fit to her liking. Just to name a few, her inspirations came from asian, european and norse mythology, christianity, the bible, various poems and other writings and overall events from the sixteenth-century world history. Of course, none of these themes are completely representative – but that’s not necessary since they’re meant to be inspirational.
There are several countries all over the known world and while Priory has a glossary – more on that later – I want at least to list the most important ones:
Queendom of Inys – ruled by the Berethnet line, currently through Sabran IX
Kingdom of Hròth
Free State of Mentendon
Yscalin – once a beautiful country, now under the rule of wyrms
The Ersyr – on the southern border to Yscalin
Domain of Lasia – birthplace of Ead
Empire of the Twelve Lakes – ruled by the Unceasing Emperor and the Imperial Dragon
Seiiki – home to Clan Miduchi and the High Sea Guard
A topic that is very close to my heart – and one of the first reasons (there are honestly more important ones, but it *was* one of the first) why I was so interested in Priory – covers the mention of dragons. Dragons have always been my favourite mythical creature and probably will always be. I haven’t found many books that have a strong draconic representation (is this even a thing?), so Priory sparked my interest pretty fast. Normally I prefer the dragon kind that one can ride – obviously the characters, not me – but while reading I soon learned, that Shannon created different kind of draconic beings. Some of them talk, others don’t. Some of them are in fact rideable and others are more likely to eat you before you can even try. As those dragons – or wyrms and wyverns – turned out to be something else than I expected, I fell even more in love with Shannon’s beautiful creativity. I don’t want to spoil anything here, so let’s just say that there are good and bad ones just like one finds such beings in humanity.
After writing so much about world-building, inspiration and dragons, this is the part where I come to the storyline of Priory. Roughly, Priory follows different POV’s (more on that later one) from the North, the South and the East of the known world of the book.
On one side stands Queen Sabran IX of the House of Berethnet. This house has ruled Inys for more than 1000 years, its reign tightly woven with a prophecy that keeps the evil out of the world. Carrying this burden on her shoulders, Queen Sabran is expected to conceive a daughter to follow her rule, since the people of the Virtudom (also known as the North) believe that as long as a Berethnet rules in Virtudom, the monster beneath the sea will sleep. But with her position in the light also come shadows – assassins are creeping ever closer to Sabran, trying to kill the Queen. Only Ead Duryan, a lady-in-waiting at court, seems to be able to protect Sabran from this. Unknowingly to the Virtudom, Ead is part of a secret society of mages from the South – and she was sent to Inys to protect the Queen.
Far away, on the Eastern side of the known world, Tané has trained the majority of her life to become a part of the honoured Miduchi clan – the clan of dragonriders. After working so hard to achieve her goals, one choice of hers could unravel everything she has known. All of this happens while the divided world is too proud to unite against an ancient menace that could destroy everything.
Because I don’t want to spoil this glorious story, I’ll say something about the storytelling of Shannon instead. Long story short, her writing is detailed and rich, lush and full of creativity. It’s graceful and mind-blowing, extravagant and dreamy. At some parts, the writing focuses a lot more on the current scene and less on the whole plot itself, which I understand might not be to everyone’s liking. Sometimes the writing lacks a bit while in other places it is exactly how it should be. One of the major themes of this book are politics, intrigues and overall the mechanics of courts and other forms of society. This is a topic that Shannon excels in. The plots she spins are extremely smart and sometimes cruel and her wording is sure-footed, helping the reader to find their way through it all – sometimes with more information, often with less. For someone like me it is extremely hard to think up such intricate schemes, so seeing such a well-thought story unfold is some kind like magic to me.
While magic is a part of the book, the characters are more important. Priory follows the paths of four characters. So again I don’t want to spoil anything, I will shortly introduce those four along with mentions of some of the side characters.
On the other side of the world, Tané – an orphan – trains to become an honoured dragonrider. She has a scar on her face that looks like a fishhook. While the heart of a dragon beats in her chest – poetically spoken – there are still many things she has to learn.
Living in the East as well is Niclays Roos, an old man almost corrupted with madness and haunted by ghosts from his past, which he can’t let go. He’s the oldest narrator and the one with the most conflicts about him.
The last of the four is Lord Arteloth Beck – a religious heir from the North and dear friend to Queen Sabran, whose journey takes him to far off lands. With rumours surrounding him and the Queen, he is seen as a threat and is sent to a foreign court in the position of an ambassador.
Not one of the narrators, but very much important is Queen Sabran IX, the ruler of Inys. With a prophecy that is bound to her bloodline, a heavy burden rests on her shoulders. Although beloved by me, the queen is very peculiar in her behaviour and often too harsh with her subjects.
Lord Kitston Glade is Loth’s best friend. He loves poems, is overall friendly and funny and will make himself at home in the reader’s heart.
The late Jannart utt Zeedeur is one of the ghosts from Niclays’ past. An aristocrat and scholar in his public life, he was completely in love with Niclays and lived privately with him.
A young girl named Truyde utt Zeedeur, who is the granddaughter of Jannart and one of the few people Niclays still cares. She’s intelligent – maybe even too much for her own good – and lives as a lady-in-waiting at the Inysh court.
After introducing some of the characters, the relationships between them are something, that is worth to write down. The strongest ones in Priory are doubtlessly the friendships. There are all kind of friendships covered in the book – even though you might have the urge to ship some of them, they’re perfectly platonic and believable. Because not every relationship has to be a romantic one. Still, the major romance of this book is wonderful! It’s f/f – in case you didn’t know that! – and while it took a great deal of the book to develop, it was everything I needed. Nothing seemed rushed or forced, but instead it developed with every scene. I have to note that there are several smaller romances throughout the book and that one of them is m/m and one of the central characters is also bisexual. I was so glad to read about this kind of diversity and even more because it felt real and not as if it was put in there as a desperate move to bring in diversity.
This brings me to some of the themes / motifs I want to highlight in Priory. One of them is the diversity. As I already mentioned, diversity is a part of the book. The aforementioned relationships and set of characters are all beautifully diverse – I’m not only talking about sexuality here, but also in terms of ethnicity. It all feels natural – which makes sense when you take another look at the sources of inspirations. So we have LGBTQ+ and ethnical representation here – and not one aspect of it forced. The part of the ethnicity is especially interesting, because there are many conflicts between the countries when it comes to religion and other general beliefs, but the color of their skin or the native tongue is not one of them. Even though there are questions about differences – difficulties as well as the beauty of it – the topic is mentioned carefully. The characters do discuss a lot and in the past there have been fights about various beliefs. But the ethnicity is no reason for that and I am so incredibly grateful that Shannon wrote it that way.
Another strong theme in Priory is the feminism that’s taking place. The book is full of strong and independent women who know what they want and what to do to get it. They don’t always reach their goal and not always are their ways of beliefs right – but they fight for it nonetheless and don’t always need a man in shining armour with a magical sword to help them (yes, that is a hint for something from the story!).
If you haven’t noticed by now, I am absolutely enchanted by this books. Even though I’ve read it in the first quarter of the year I already know that this is going to be a favourite read of mine. Not just for this year, but also for my whole reading experience. The Priory of the Orange Tree is an exquisite story of friendships, intrigue and the gap that can arise because of different beliefs – no matter the topic of these. It is worthy of the praise it has gained until now and Samantha Shannon has all the rights to claim the title of a High Fantasy Queen.
Now that I am at the end of this review, I realized that my train of thoughts is almost as long as the story of Priory. I have seen lots of people being absolutely intimidated by the size of the book. But maybe I can help you with tackling the fear so that you might be able to read this gorgeous book. Even though the book is pretty big, it is divided into six parts – those are perfectly manageable if you look at them as if they were six smaller books. The story itself is ‘only’ about 800 pages long, because the last 40-50 pages include a glossary, an overview of the characters with short descriptions and – of course – the acknowledgements. So Priory looks more intimidating than it is. Think about it like a dragon – you might think that it will kill you, but in truth the two of you will have the time of your lives!
Last but not least – no one will rush you to finally read that damned book. You can take your time and read as fast or as slow as you want to. It is alright. And even if you end up deciding that you don’t want to read it, that’s okay. I won’t judge you. But if you do read it, please feel free to hit me up – because I do have a crazy need to talk about all that happened!