Samantha Shannon’s latest book, The Priory of the Orange Tree, comes in at a whopping 804 pages and that’s not including the section at the end which gives you a timeline, a glossary and an explanation of characters. This is a BIG book. And it’s amazing. I gave it 5 stars and it is 100% a new favourite of mine!
Sadly this took me far longer than I wanted to get through it, for a variety of reasons that boiled down to being nervous about its size. If you’re the same I can tell you right now that if you sit and read 100 pages of this book each day, not only will you finish it in just over a week but you’ll be completely and utterly absorbed into the story.
Let’s start not with the story itself but with what Samantha Shannon included within her book. First things first, this is a f/f novel, this romance is written with such care and emotion that I was routing for it from the moment its possibility was conceived. In the interests of staying spoiler free I won’t mention who the ladies are, but I immediately routed for them as individuals and this really translated beautifully into routing for their romantic relationship. It flows naturally and you can tell that the two of them were always supposed to be together.
Keeping with the diverse theme, there is also a genuinely healthy mix of races in this book. Of course this is a fantasy world, but this is something that is sadly not as prevelant as it should be amongst fantasy. So many authors, often unconciously due to their own internal biases will include 90% (or more) white characters within their fantasy books. Not here! With the POV switching to people from various places around this world, as well as having multiple races living in one realm, we read from the POV of white, Black and Asian people with what I took to be complete equality (but I recommend taking this with a grain of salt as I am white myself and therefore live with inherent biases that I am still working to overcome).
Lastly in the amazing diversity that has been written in this book is the feminism. Now many books will have strong female characters, that thankfully is nothing new. But not only do we have strong women from every race (which is sadly still something of note) but these women have power. They are respected. In this fantasy realm, they are treated as equals. I thought I had read books like that before. No. I had multiple jolts as I read through this book where a leader of a Guard (or another similar position) turns out to be female and I had assumed they were male. One of the elder characters mentions his old tutor at one point. I didn’t realise I was automatically assuming they were male until he said “she”. This is all through the book and has really made me think about how women are portrayed in fiction. Even when they’re the “strong female character” they are often the exception, in many books men are still the teachers, the leaders, the ones with power. This book has really opened my eyes to what I was accepting from other books as equality, and how it really really wasn’t.
Now. Onto the actual book! This is a beautiful slow burner of a fantasy that follows various regions of this world as an ancient enemy awakens and threatens them all. Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic. Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel. Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep. Samantha Shannon has described this as a feminist retelling of Saint George and the Dragon, and although I hadn’t seen that until after I had read the book, it does mean that I can say I 100% agree!
All of these regions and realms have beautiful world building around them, really fleshing them out and I was left feeling like I had an intimate knowledge of them all, whilst wanting to know more! When these different groups interacted with each other I really got to feel like I understood the political tension and the reason for each groups actions. Whilst I had my favourite narrators and locations I found myself never really agreeing with one side over another, their reasoning and way of life was explained so beautifully that I had complete empathy with all the variations.
By the time I was reaching the end of this book, I was wishing there were more pages! And I really did not expect that from an 800+ page tome that I had originally struggled to get through! I’ve found myself really sad that this is a standalone work and I do hope for at least some titbits from Samantha Shannon in the future about this beautiful world she has created. This is a new favourite book, one I recommend to anyone who enjoys fantasy. It will be sticking with me in my thoughts for a long time yet.