The Priory of the Orange Tree is a kind of book that might be as rare as hen’s teeth these days: it’s an epic fantasy story full of magic and dragons that happens to be a standalone novel rather than just one part of a sprawling series. This is not to say that the story contained within the novel isn’t substantial; at over 800 pages, The Priory of the Orange Tree sits somewhere between A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords in length. And I hate to say it, but after reading the book, I’m not sure it should have been a stand-alone after all. There is simply too much story in her to be contained in one volume, and it probably would have been better served if it had been split in two.
My comparison of Priory with two of the A Song of Ice and Fire novels is not accidental; I’m just merely getting the inevitable out of the way before we start. Yes, it’s the dragons – but not just the dragons. Priory shares a number of other similarities with ASOIAF, including the focus on political machinations, a well fleshed out lore and a narrative that rotates through a cast of characters. But where Priory really strives to distinguish itself in regard to the cultural and political breadth covered by each of the four main points of view.
Ead is a young woman from the South who’s currently in service to the court of the Queen of Inys, a Western kingdom that could have walked out of Europe’s High Middle Ages. The chivalry-and-valour that dictates Virtuedom society is underpinned by a mythos that strongly resembles the story of St George. So it’s no surprise that the Kingdom despises dragons; and they sincerely believe that as long as their royal line is upheld mother to daughter, the worst of the dragons, The Nameless One, will never return.
Ead’s motives are not as clear as they first seem – like the people of the West, she is also from a culture that fears dragons, and her purpose in court is to help protect Queen Sabran’s life – with hidden magic if it comes to it. Along with various other courtiers and nobles, Ead initially shares the court and with another point of view character, Lord Arteloth. Known as Loth to his friends, his closeness with the unmarried Queen becomes too uncomfortable for other power players, and he’s sent off to the heathen kingdom of Yscalin in what is likely a diplomatic mission doomed from the start.
Halfway across the world, in the East, Tané is in training to become a dragon rider and is not afraid of embracing ruthless tactics to achieve her goal. Unlike the feared beasts of the West, Eastern water dragons are intelligent, thoughtful beings who co-exist with humans. Unfortunately, the people of the West fail to draw any kind of distinction between dragons, and diplomatic ties between the two regions are notoriously threadbare as a result. Early on in the story, Tané crosses paths with the alchemist Niclays Roos, a Western exile who shares a secret bitter past with Queen Sabran, and suddenly things snowball from there.
Of the four characters, I found that I rather enjoyed reading about all of them, even though I think ‘liked’ is a bit too much for one of the four, who you are not meant to completely embrace straight away anyhow. I do have to wonder though if the author liked them all equally herself because their individual stories do not get the same level of attention across the book, and I was left with the feeling there was one clear favourite – and one who the author didn’t always know what to do with.
And this brings me back to whether or not this book should have remained a stand-alone or split into two. While the first half of the book keeps a steady, and very readable pace, the second half feels much more rushed. Players start moving around the continent at far greater speeds than previously, and plot points are picked up and then resolved progressively more rapidly. At least two of the points of view could have really benefited with more room to develop and grow, and it’s a bit of a shame they didn’t get that. But despite the fact you’re working through the plot like a hot knife through butter, the book remains rather gripping, even though to the end.
On the positive side, while the narrative sometimes felt rushed, the lore-building never suffered the same fate. The reimaging and rebuilding off the legend of St George was very nicely done. The mythology surrounding the world’s magic was also rather lovely, and often as interesting as the main POV characters. There was also a casualness in the way character’s sexualities were handled, which is refreshing. While the story has more than a fair share of winks and nods to Classic fantasy, regressive ideas about sex and sexual roles were not shipped along wholesale.
Despite some of the flaws, I really rather enjoyed this book and found it the perfect companion for when I was travelling around at breakneck speeds myself earlier this year. If Samantha Shannon wants to come back to this setting at any time, perhaps with some novellas to further out the backstory, as the main narrative has been resolved, I would be glad to read them