Book Review – The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

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Rating: 2 out of 5.

I was supposed to love this, and I can’t put into words the sheer amount of disappointment I felt when I realized that it just wasn’t going to happen. The Priory of the Orange Tree has good intentions, but as far as I’m concerned it thoroughly failed in its execution.

Let’s start with one of my biggest complaint : the world-building. From the moment I read the author’s note, I should have known better. Indeed here’s what we can read at the beginning of the book :

The fictional lands of The Priory of the Orange Tree are inspired by events and legends from various parts of the world. None is intended as a faithful representation of any one country or culture in any point in history.

Huh. If that doesn’t feel like a get out of jail free card, I don’t know what does — starting off with this is certainly a choice, and not one I’d advise a British white author to make. But moving on. I was intent on giving this book the benefit of the doubt, because I had read so many reviews gushing about how diverse it was. In the end though, I shouldn’t have bothered : take the eastern part of the world, for example. From the moment I started reading about Tané, the Seiikinese main character — well, main is a big word, but we’ll get back to it — I couldn’t help but notice that even though the East was very obviously Asian inspired, it felt hollow. There’s a discussion to be had about the unfair expectations of “accuracy” we put on Asian writers’ shoulders when it comes to representation, but the fact that Samantha Shannon is white changes things. If you can’t see why it does, I can only urge you to educate yourself on cultural appropriation. I can see you shaking your head, but sadly it doesn’t matter that she probably had good intentions. As a white french woman, I’m far from the best judge, but I’ll advise you read this discussion written by a Japanese reviewer if you want a detailed debrief on why the East portrayal doesn’t work.

My problems with The Priory of the Orange Tree don’t stop at the wishy-washy world-building, however : mostly I was bored out of my mind, and I say this as someone who genuinely enjoys long character-driven Fantasy novels. For this section I’ll make a list, because after going through its 848 pages, I really can’t be bothered to do more :

  • The pacing was all over the place, and if I had hope it would get better at first, sadly I reached the end with the sentiment that the story had never really started. The stakes are supposed to be so high, so how come I can barely bother to care?
  • The final climax was a joke. Like, I can’t say anything else for fear of spoiling you, but REALLY??? After 750 pages, the main antagonist we never meet before — I knooow — is taken care of so easily?
  • This is supposed to be a story with several main characters but let’s face it, Ead is the only one who’s given the time of day. And I did like her, but it’s not enough to carry a 800+ pages book. I’m particularly annoyed at how Tané’s storyline kinda plummeted despite having so much potential in the beginning.
  • DRAGONS : WHERE ARE THEY could be the book’s subtitle and I’m so very disappointed on that front. True, there are dragons, but as for Tané’s storyline, they’re somewhat buried under Inysh — *cough* English *cough* — political schemings and I mean, why not? I’d probably be on board with this if I had no prior expectations whatsoever, but sadly, I had. In the end we learn so few things about dragons except that fire dragons are bad and water dragons are good and I mean?????? Okay?????
  • Listen, I love stories embedded into stories. I believe it can enhance a world-building in a wonderful way —This is something Ava Reid did splendidly in The Wolf and the Woodsman, one of my favorite books last year. Here however, the glacial pace made it really hard not to throw my kindle every time — and it happened so very often — that a character would stop whatever they were doing and say heyyyy do you want to hear a story? NO I DON’T. PLEASE DON’T MAKE ME. I want to hear these characters’ stories but apparently that’s too much to ask. I enjoy it when stories are a well deserved relief from action but when barely nothing is happening? No thank you.
  • Don’t get me started on the magic system for which the only explanations we get are so simplistic it’s not even funny. Mages do stuff thanks to magical stuff that just happens to be found when it’s convenient for the plot and ahhhhh please let me forget everything about it, it’s going to be quick trust me.

Having said all that, I can somewhat understand why The Priory of the Orange Tree is so popular, and I liked parts of it :

  • I really appreciated the obvious central place Samantha Shannon wanted to give to women in general, and to their agency in particular. This is something we still don’t see enough in Fantasy and I’m glad it was there. Ead was a great main character and as I said earlier, I liked her.
  • The Priory of the Orange Tree‘s main pairing is sapphic, and its world includes several queer characters : this should be the norm, but sadly it still isn’t in adult Fantasy, even though it’s definitely better now that it used to be — thanks to wonderful authors like N.K. Jemisin and Rebecca Roanhorse for example. Important to note though that one of the queer relationship (m/m pairing) is tragic — this is not a spoiler, as one of the characters is already dead at the beginning.
  • Margret and Kit are absolutely wonderful and I need y’all to tell me if you ever find fanfiction about them — not together as a couple!!!! — because I miss them already. 99% of my laughs included Kit, and Margret is just so badass, I adore her.

So that’s it. That’s my review of a highly popular book I was so sure I would love that I ordered a physical copy I now will have to return. So if you hear me complain about going to the post-office, know that this is all this book’s fault. Sigh.

You can find content warnings here.

About The Priory of the Orange Tree
Author : Samantha Shannon | Publisher : Bloomsbury Publishing | Genre : Adult Fantasy | Pages : 848

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.

9 thoughts on “Book Review – The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

  1. I was never interested in this one because an 800+ page book has to sound reaaaaaally good for me to be interested in it (and ideally, has to be written by an author I already trust) but now I’m really glad that I wasn’t excited to read this book. Because of so many things, honestly. But the treatment of the East sounds really cringy (thanks for the link to bookycnidaria) even when not considering cultural appropriation. And if I’m reading this right, you don’t meet the antagonist at all for the first 88% of the book? Like… nope. I can’t take ANY book that does that seriously.

      1. It is so hard to do a book where the antagonist is someone the characters (and readers!) know about but have never met. It’s possible, but the antagonist still needs to have such a concrete presence that you forget you haven’t met him! It’s really hard to pull off.

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