REVIEW: The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

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Author: Samantha Shannon (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus

Genre: Epic fantasy

Buy Now: ebook | hardcover

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.

Anyone who bumped into me last November would have probably heard me grumbling about this book. I was annoyed about how long it was, how heavy it was, how unwieldy it was to read – and I was reading a paperback ARC, the first release is hardcover guys, imagine dropping that on your face. I was even more annoyed that, during my read, I couldn’t necessarily find anything that could be easily removed from the narrative to make the book shorter. In fact, to date I have not read a book where I have thought so much about how I would publish it as I did whilst I was slogging my way through this absolute beast of a novel.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, but I spent as much time trying to ‘problem solve’ the publication as I did thinking about the plot.

I am not hugely familiar with Shannon’s work, although I know she has had success with her YA series previously, which is part of the reason Bloomsbury took the risk of publishing such a huge book. (I’ve talked a bit about the issues of publishing giant books before – in fact, this is one of the books which inspired that post.) She is a fluent writer, and clearly has expertise in world building and consistency of character over such a long period. But this book takes a while to really get going.

One of my thoughts about how I would have published this book was that, as the book is separated into several smaller parts anyway (unclear why), it would have made sense to just split it further into a duology at least. Except, whilst there is an easy point at which you could do this, it would mean that the first book would be extremely slow, and entirely character establishment and world building. There are a lot of characters to be introduced, and then moved to the required positions before the plot can play out. It wouldn’t necessarily make sense for them to begin in these positions, so if the book were split into two there would need to be some major restructuring of the plot to make the first part more lively, and ensure interest in part two.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a huge problem given the vast nature of the world Shannon has created, and the characters she has brought to life. There is plenty to be mined from there. So why wasn’t this done? My second thought, then, was that Shannon and Bloomsbury had decided this was going to be a stand-alone piece, a single novel. That would explain the length and also the slightly slow start. Everything was going to be in one book, so it had to be a bit weightier to tie up all the plot threads.

You’ll imagine how mildly furious I was when I got to the end and found it left open for sequels. If the plan was to do more than one book anyway, why on earth would you bother trying to cram so much into a single volume? Why wouldn’t you just look at the structure and cut it into two books half the length. For starters, more profit because more book sales, and for second it would have saved my spine from lugging it around in my rucksack as I read it.

This book was initially pitched to me by the friend who got me the ARC as “lesbians and dragons”, which is a much more exciting title than “The Priory of the Orange Tree”, a title which seems to me somewhat lacklustre. “Politics and dragons, plus occasional lesbians” might be more accurate, although perhaps a mite less pithy.

The novel covers two rival countries – one clearly based on Western Europe, where fire dragons, or ‘wyrms’, were the scourge of the nation and were banished by the ancestor of the queen centuries before; the other based on East Asia, where dragons are associated with water and wisdom, and are revered as gods. Both are threatened by the potential return of the fire dragons – neither is entirely willing to give ground to work together.

The hardest part of this story initially is the laborious introduction of so many characters in various parts of the world, and establishing their motives, background and character. It’s involved, and as with any sort of political machinations, a little dry in parts. But, as I found after much thought and no little irritation, it all seemed annoyingly necessary. Sometimes when I read a book I can go “this could easily be cut to streamline things”, but there was a care and thoughtfulness to what was included here that was almost irksome, for how heavy the stupid thing was.

I realise I’ve seemed quite grouchy throughout this review – this is an excellent book. I will probably re-read it in the future, when I’ve forgotten how annoyed I was that it was so good. Shannon has managed to create an epic and developed world, portrayed the complexity of the political and personal relationships with great sensitivity and empathy. Once I reached the ‘pop point’ of this book (the part of the book where I feel like I have pushed past the set up and exposition, like a cork out of a bottle, and the rest of the story seems to come pouring after it), I did find it difficult to put down. That is part of why I grumbled so much about the size – it came with me to work each day, and on a round trip to London for the SYP conference, and by the end of the day I really did feel it, but I felt like I couldn’t take a smaller book on at the same time, because The Priory of the Orange Tree was so involved and epic that I would either a) get easily confused, or b) any other book I tried to read wouldn’t compare favourably to it, because the scale would just be so different. Also, in general, I don’t like reading two books at once, I much prefer to just focus on one. That’s another reason I got so grumbly about the length – my reading style is to take a running leap headlong into a book and just barge my way through to the end.

I can definitely say that with this book, you’ll be getting your money’s worth.

Briefly:

  • An involved, considered and completely epic story dealing with the political and personal issues when a world-changing event is on the horizon. Lots of intrigue, lots of bureaucracy, lots of people focusing on entirely the wrong problem.
  • There is a wealth of characters in the book, and all of the narrative characters feel fully developed and measured, even if they’re not entirely likeable.
  • I am still annoyed about the size of it, and particularly so since the ending left some string untied. IF IT’S GOING TO HAVE A SEQUEL ANYWAY, SEX IT UP A BIT AND SPLIT IT INTO SMALLER BOOKS. Ramp up the political intrigue, zhuzh up the UST a bit, start the peril building a little earlier, and then have a normal sized book. The End.
  • At the end of the book, after all the cast lists and glossaries and timelines, there is an unexpected and delightful note on the typeface used in the book  – Garamond, if you’re curious. It gives the history of the typeface and its creator, and was just a surprising and lovely touch. I hope it makes it into the finished product.

Rating: 4/5 – Usually in this situation I would say “This would be rated higher if there’s a sequel coming to address the issues that I felt were left open”, but in this situation I am saying the OPPOSITE because if a sequel comes out WHAT IS THE POINT IN SQUASHING SO MUCH INTO ONE BOOK. Sincerely, Claire’s Chiropractor

10 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

  1. writingthebluesaway says:

    I’ve heard so much about this book from book bloggers! I agree with you that huge books are not ideal; I find them pretty daunting and feel like I’m getting nowhere closer to the end, and like you said they’re a pain to carry around. I’m quite intimated by the length and the amount of characters but I still want to give this a go considering you’ve rated it highly!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Redhead says:

    I love the idea of this book, but am intimidated by the length. If a long book is lots of action and dialog and is a “fast read”, I do OK with it. but this does not sound like a fast read. Maybe this will be a summer book for me, i tend to do better with longer books when the days are longer, more opportunities to read by natural daylight.

    I appreciate your in depth review! You didn’t come off as grouchy, you sounded like someone who had a positive and negative experience, all in the same book. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Claire says:

      Yeah I get that. It’s definitely a bit of a plodder to begin with. Honestly if I sequel comes out though I’ll be so cross they didn’t split it into two books to make a full series and speed things up a bit.

      Like

  3. mydreamality says:

    Really enjoyed reading your review as I’ve heard a fair bit about this book online. I haven’t yet read it but agree that it’s pointless cramming so much into part 1 when there’s going to be a part 2. Why did she do that??

    Liked by 1 person

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