Review: Priory of the Orange Tree (Samantha Shannon)

Priory of the Orange TreeGreetings once more dear Readers. How the devil are we all? For those who follow me, you’ll know that I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the new voices in fantasy of late, and to that end I thought I’d give Priory of the Orange Tree a go.

Some have balked at the size of this tome, but not I! ‘Twas but a mere literary snack….. oh, but surely you jest, sir? At 800+ pages? Honestly, don’t let the size fool you, because this really isn’t a particularly arduous read.

The hardest task was intially distiguishing between all the privy maids and court ladies, but once you get going the complexities of the royal household don’t hinder the pace beyond the occasional patches of exposition which were handled without fuss.

Overall the plot moves along nicely, with multiple threads that tie together well enough as it moves along towards the inevitable confrontation with the ancient evil (the “Nameless One” no less) who we all know will rear it’s ugly head at the end.

Pretty standard stuff to be honest, so when you read blurbs (on the rear of the dust jacket) which proclaim:

Takes everything you know about high fantasy, rips it apart and remakes it…. Nothing short of game changing.

……you might be disappointed to learn that it doesn’t, not really. Yeah, the kingdom is a queendom, but it’s not much more than a standard royal hierarchy with nobles and townsfolk etc etc. Add in some good dragons and trainee riders à la orient, an alchemist, and some badass priestess assassins. Season with a wicked witch.

For me, it didn’t feel like an overly original recipe – typical medieval high fantasy setting and characters with a magic sword – but what shines is how well it’s executed. It is the blurbs that do this novel a disservice, and it comes dangerously close to hyperbole when invoking claims such as “the feminist Game of Thrones” or the “feminist successor to The Lord of the Rings”.

Sure, it has a strong feminine focus, but it feels more like it’s just inverting the norms rather than ripping them apart and remaking them. Perhaps it’s just that medieval fantasy is so rooted in a patriarchal world view that this feels a bit like patriarchy in drag, whereas a good example of something that did rip apart the old and remake it, for me, would be something like Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty.

Anyhew, marketing ploys aside this really is a great slice of fantasy. It’s not overly grim or gratuitous and in that way harkens back to traditional, old fashioned fantasy. It was well plotted, handled and executed. I never got overly bored with any of the story lines – there are, of course, times when you just want to get back to the thread you’re enjoying the most – but for the greater part it was engaging. The characters were nicely sketched and the world was well rounded out with history and culture.

Overall, an enjoyable read and one that should be praised for its strong female characters. Fantasy is, after all, a great platform for exploring alternative realities, and – hyperbole aside – this is a nice addition to other female voices in the genre such as Robin Hobb, N.K. Jemisin, Patricia A McKillip and Ursula LeGuin (to name a few off the top of my head).

Overall: 4/5

Coming up…..

As any of you readers out there know, the reading list of new material is pretty much inexhaustable, but I’ve got a few in the pipeline that sound promising – I’ve just started on Chuck Wendigs Wanderers so look out for a little review of that depending on how quickly I get through it.

Meanwhile, what with weddings and a festival coming up, I’m not sure how much is going to get posted in the next couple of weeks, but I’m hoping to bring you lot some more consistent posts in the run up to Christmas: keep a look out for some new shorts that I’ve been working on, and a few updates about the submissions I made for Red Star Rising since I finised all the final edits.

So, until next time, take it easy out there.


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