Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Review: THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE by Samantha Shannon

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

A world divided for over a thousand years: the west fears dragons, the east reveres dragons, yet their common enemy is about to rise again.

In the west, it is believed that the great evil wyrm called the Nameless One will remain at bay as long as an heir of Berethnet rules Inys, as has been the case for the past millennium since he was vanquished, but the current Queen Sabran has rejected all her suitors and the people are worried she won’t marry, which will thus release the Nameless One to wreak havoc once again.

In the east, they believe differently, and they have dragons of their own that are not at all like the fire-breathers of the west. I love the juxtaposition between the dragons from the east, dragons of water, and dragons from the west, dragons of fire. I saw a similar connection to the dragons in our world, the traditional Chinese dragon and the European dragon.

This story follows four perspectives. In the west we have Ead, who is a lady-in-waiting in the court of Inys, sent there to protect Queen Sabran; and Loth, best friend of Sabran and who has been sent away on a mission to a foreign land. In the east we have Tané, a girl who has spent her whole life training to be a dragon rider but who harbors a secret that could cost her everything; and Niclays Roos, an alchemist who was banished from Queen Sabran’s court seven years ago and is now living in exile.

It is easy to keep straight the four main perspectives, and it’s easy to keep track of the secondary characters, but there are a lot of tertiary characters that I kept getting mixed up, especially the people of the court and who held which positions. Ultimately it didn’t matter too much and it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the story, but just know that there are a lot of characters in this book, especially when you take into account all the historical and mythological figures that play an important role in the religion and politics of the world.

That is one thing I loved about The Priory of the Orange Tree though, is that it is a highly detailed world with a very rich history. The history of this world plays a huge part in the founding of all of the religions, and you can see where they each divided over time. There are also distinct cultures and landscapes described in the different nations of the world, and each nation has its own language that is consistently referenced. I cannot communicate how in-depth this story is, like there had to have been so much research and time put into constructing the world because of how utterly expansive it is, and I love that. The world-building here is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

I also love how everything connects. Some characters are related to certain historical figures, of which some of these were the cause for the creation of the religion in Inys, and the present-day religious beliefs in Inys completely drive their politics, which in turn affects the political climate of the surrounding nations, and the list goes on and on. So many threads weave together to form a beautiful story. I love all the political intrigue discussed as well.

Despite the size of this tome, Priory is actually very readable, and it’s easy to get right into the story. I was intimidated to start it, but after a few chapters, I knew I was in for a good ride. I will say that the beginning is much more drawn out than the end, but I think that’s because we are being introduced to the vast world and cast of characters, plus I was constantly referencing the maps, the timeline, the glossary, and the comprehensive character list while I was getting used to the story. I like knowing everything when I start a book so I will spend time getting to know the world and the characters at the beginning, even if it takes extra time. It’s not a slow-moving or boring story, but it does require time and patience to read, so just know that before starting it.

Speaking of the maps, I am so grateful they were included. I really don’t think I would have made it through this book otherwise. They were beautifully drawn across three full pages and were very helpful in pinpointing all the locations mentioned throughout the story. I do wish, however, that we had an even broader map. There were vague references to locations beyond the borders of the map and I wished I could see them and see even more of this world. I think a fold-out map would be perfect for this book.

I also wish we would have learned more about Hróth and the Empire of the Twelve Lakes. We see so much of the other nations but we know next to nothing about those two. The Empire of the Twelve Lakes is the biggest nation on the map and it has a very detailed landscape, yet we learn very little about it during most of the book, and Hróth literally has only one city on the map because most of the nation is beyond the page. I would love to see this world expanded in every direction because I just can’t get enough of it and there’s so much more to explore.

We spend a great deal of our time in Inys, seeing as it’s the influence for the primary religion of the west and three of our four main characters have lived in Inys at some point. I love the idea of the queendom in Inys, where the queen is expected to produce a female heir. That’s a complete flip on the traditional patriarchy where the king is expected to produce a male heir, and it was great. This book has a lot of feminist undertones, and I thought it was wonderful. Also, there is very little romance in this book, but what little is there is beautiful.

This was one of the first books where I didn’t mind reading about pirates. Normally—and I don’t know why—I don’t like stories set on boats or involving pirates, but I actually enjoyed the small part of this book that included pirates.

The last 150-ish pages went a lot quicker than the rest of the book. Not that the beginning and middle were slow, but the ending seemed a lot faster in comparison. And the climax of the book felt a bit rushed, to the point that I was slightly disappointed because I expected the final battle to take longer and be more difficult. We have nearly 800 pages of buildup and 1,000 years of preparation for this final moment, and then . . . it’s over like that. Maybe that’s just me, and this isn’t a huge complaint because the rest of the book was so extraordinary, but I would have liked to see a bit more at the end.

Also, I think the finding of Ascalon was too easy. It’s been lost for centuries and all of the sudden a character is like, oh I think it’s in this place, and it is, and I wish there had been more mystery behind that. There are some great twists and unexpected reveals in this story, but sometimes the path to get there was so convoluted that the outcomes felt a bit too easy for all the trouble the characters had to go through.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Priory of the Orange Tree, and I would recommend it to high fantasy fans who love dragons. It’s long and takes patience to read, but the world is so beautiful and the characters are so wonderful that every second spent in this book is worth it. And although this is marketed as a standalone fantasy, I want more, I really do. I can see so many openings for a sequel, like which directions it could take, because each character’s future is left open, and I need more details. I hope one day we get to see more in this world, even if it’s set another thousand years in the future and involves different characters.

Here are some SPOILERY questions about the ending:
What can we learn from the ending? Who was Ead’s real father? What was the blood on Tané’s side?
I expected Niclays and Nayimuthun to be dead and was surprised when they came back, especially the dragon.
The Nameless One tells Sabran, Beware the sweet water. What does that mean? Do not say things unless they are important to the future of the story.
The emperor of the Empire of the Twelve Lakes told us about his lover who he spurned and she said that she was coming for him. Will we see what this really means?
What will become of the celestial jewels?
Will Tané and Ead become friends?
What will Sabran do in the next decade, and who will she elect to rule Inys once she abdicates the throne and moves to Lasia to be with Ead?
Also, Fýredel is still out there and therefore could be the villain of the next installment.

Even though the story wraps up nicely, there are still so many questions left unanswered. I need more.

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