The Priory of the Orange Tree
by Samantha Shannon
Published February 26, 2019, by Bloomsbury Press
If a book’s opening epigraph takes a quote from the biblical Book of Revelation, what follows had best be epic. In her first standalone fantasy novel, best-selling author Samantha Shannon takes a stab at creating something epic with her tale of clashing cultures, dragons, and a thousand-year-old prophecy coming to fruition.
In the glittering court of Inys, Queen Sabran the Ninth must marry and bear a daughter to keep her country intact and prevent the rising of the Nameless One, a beast who will cover all the world in fire and darkness. She is protected from assassins by Ead Duryan, one of Sabran’s ladies-in-waiting who comes from a faraway land at the behest of the Priory of the Orange Tree, a mystical monastery where young women are trained to protect the world by slaying the fire-breathing wyrms. Meanwhile, far across the ocean to the east, young Tané has trained all her life to become one of the prestigious dragon-riding warriors of Seiiki, but an impetuous decision one night puts all that she has worked for into jeopardy. As the wyrms begin to wake from their long sleep, chaos spreads across the lands. The conflicting cultures must try to set aside their differences and defeat the oncoming darkness or face the end of the world as they know it.
The Priory of the Orange Tree is a sprawling work, both in its global scale and in its propensity for stumbling about. Shannon creates a world both strange and familiar, basing her cultures upon recognizable real-world regions and times– Inys reads like a blend of the sixteenth-century English courts of Queen Mary I and her more politically astute younger half-sister, Elizabeth I, while Seiiki reads like feudal Japan. Shades of Dutch, Mongolian, African, Norse, and Arabic cultures appear as well to create a diverse cast of characters.
But while the world-building is excellent, The Priory of the Orange Tree reads like a story in search of a plot. There are as many pages devoted to Queen Sabran’s marital status as there are to figuring out how to save the world entire. The political machinations of Sabran and her court are meant to heighten the drama surrounding the crucial nature of Sabran’s bloodline, but when it all unravels, it makes the characters look particularly naïve in a court that acts like it is accustomed to cutthroat politics. Because so very many pages are devoted to the trials and travails of Sabran the Ninth, the first half of the book feels like a meandering domestic drama with dashes of Tané’s story added in for color.
As for Tané, though she becomes vitally important in the final third, her story in the first 500 pages is almost an afterthought. She seems to only be there to add diversity, provide a viewpoint character in a culture the author is keen to show off, and so her role in the final battle doesn’t come out of the blue.
The overall story mirrors Tané’s arc in its being backloaded. The final 250 pages encompass the most interesting parts of all, though they are rushed. Had the book been about these final events and dispensed with the Inysh court’s petty political machinations, The Priory of the Orange Tree might have lived up to the epic promise of its Revelations-quoting epigraph.
The writing, too, often lets The Priory down. With her often flowery prose, Shannon seeks to craft a beautiful story, but often lets similes and idle verbosity get in the way of clarity.
“Dawn cracked like a heron’s egg over Seiiki. Pale light prowled into the room. The shutters had been opened for the first time in eight days.
Tané gazed at the ceiling with raw eyes. She had been restless all night, hot and cold by turns.
She would never wake in this room again. Choosing Day had come. The day she had awaited since she was a chld– and risked, like a fool, when she decided to break seclusion. By asking Susa to hide the outsider in Orisima, she had also risked both their lives.
Her stomach turned like a watermill. She scooped up her uniform and wash bag, passed the sleeping Ishari, and stole out of the room.
This florid writing serves to distance the reader from the characters so much that character deaths hardly matter. They’re there one page and gone the next, and their passing is hardly remarked upon. It is difficult to be concerned about characters when it seems as though they’re being observed from far away and through a veil of flowery lace.
For all its flaws, though, The Priory of the Orange Tree is an impressive feat of worldbuilding for an author still in her twenties. If Shannon’s ability to control the interconnected elements of plot and story improves to match her ability to create a luxurious atmosphere, Samantha Shannon will undoubtedly have a long and storied career ahead of her.