Author: Samantha Shannon
Rating: 5 Stars
Dates read: 26 Jan 19 – 02 Mar 19
Publication date: 26 Feb 2019
An enthralling, epic fantasy about a world on the brink of war with dragons – and the women who must lead the fight to save it.
A world divided. A queendom without an heir. An ancient enemy awakens.
The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door.
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 to be a dragonrider since she was a child, 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.
*THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW*
I think it is safe to say that The Priory of the Orange Tree has only been rivalled by King of Scars as the most eagerly anticipated book release of 2019. Samantha Shannon’s first foray into adult fantasy has been met with excitement, with the advanced copies appearing over bibliophiles social media feeds, and a mad rush to pre-order copies so they arrived as soon as we could get our grubby hands on them. Let me tell you, it’s all been worth it because this book is special.
There is undoubtedly going to be talk about this being an epic high fantasy by a female author, and with that, certain comparisons will undoubtedly be drawn to similar works by male authors. This immediately needs to be forgotten. This is a spectacular piece of high fantasy, and in my honest opinion, is the best piece of high fantasy I have ever read. Unlike the works of authors such as George R R Martin and J R R Tolkien, each character serves a tangible service, characters are not there as cannon fodder and emotional realisation tools for the protagonist and antagonists, and there is strong representation for different genders and sexualities.
In addition, it follows just four protagonists throughout. These characters interact at points, but their origins, motivators, and relationships divulge so much detail about different physical, political, and religious points within the story. Tané, Ead, Niclays, and Loth are all amazing. They are so different and interesting, and following them is never a chore, which means there is no part of the book that you are racing to skip past or could quite happily do with out. This is a pleasant departure from similar fantasies of the past that dwell on characters and storylines that aren’t as interesting or relevant as others. The drip-feeding nature of learning about the world through the eyes of these 4 characters allows you to slowly and richly build the world and the story within which we’re operating, and is paced just right to keep the story flowing whilst delivering enough information that you can track what’s going on without feeling like info is being dumped upon you.
The best fantasy books follow great characters, operate within an interesting and unstable world, and follow their own internal logically flawlessly. Shannon’s novel does this with expert precision. We are made aware of relevant history that forms the instability within the story. The magical forces and draconic armies and lore are introduced from all angles and viewpoints so drivers are established early and make sense alongside one another. The magic and draconic elements are essential within this story and are expertly woven into the political and religious tapestries in the book. There is a great level of detail and complexity throughout the narrative and the world building, but none of it felt over-powering. Such rich and complete fantasy worlds don’t usually feel so simple to understand and navigate, and is truly impressive feat and a testament to the story telling prowess of the author.
The representation throughout the story is also unrivalled in the fantasy world. The female characters are strong, supportive of one another, intelligent, and given positions of power. Men are not downgraded to make way for this, there are supportive male characters, who are intelligent and fuel the plot too. There is strong same-sex relationship representation two, with both lead male and female characters having same-sex relationships/love interests. The names of the characters and areas also feel very diverse. I am sure that part of the intention is for the names to somewhat indicate the area they’re from and culture they belong to in the story. It’s immensely helpful to be able to connect people to place and culture, and is both expertly and sensitively done throughout the book. The best bit about all of this is that it doesn’t feel forced. Absolutely none of the representation feels unnatural or like it has been shoe-horned into the story, but that it is a natural, nay, logical part of the plot and is something I absolutely adored.
I really don’t want to spoil anything of the plot or character fate, for this is a tome and a half and I know some people will take some time to read through the book and will want to savour each twist and turn as they encounter them, and to find their own joy in reading each character journey. I have really struggled with choosing a favourite character perspective, but after careful consideration, I think I have narrowed it down to a tie between Ead and Tané. As much as the boys are great, and they are, Loth and Niclays are fascinating and have great story arcs, Tané and Ead evolve and grow throughout the book and really epitomised the positions and worlds they were amongst. I think it’s great to have powerful men and women to aspire to in novels, and these two are great mixture of compassion, determination, and intelligence, and I quite simply could not get enough of them, or of Priory. I have read all about bookish hangovers, and about the pain of reading a great book quickly, but never quite understood it before. This book was hard to put down, but at the same time, I wanted it to go slower because I knew once I had finished I would feel a little hole where reading it had been. Sure enough, the bookish hangover has arrived.
All in all, this book is deserving of all the hype surrounding it. I am lucky enough to read a lot of books, and to have read a lot of adult fantasy, and this is quite simply the best adult high fantasy I have ever read, and sits only a short way behind Harry Potter as my favourite fantasy. It slipped into my favourite books, not just of recent times, but that I have ever read. I don’t know how to express how much I enjoyed it other than to say Thank you Samantha, your hard work and effort has paid off and this is simply one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.