The Priory of the Orange Tree, by Samantha Shannon

Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree has been getting quite a bit of buzz from the sci-fi/fantasy crowd of late, but for the longest time I wasn’t able to free up enough time to sink my teeth into it – until recently! I understand the buzz now; I did enjoy it, and would recommend it – but with some caveats.

The Priory of the Orange Tree is definitely an expansive book, with a lot of well thought out and wonderfully expressed world building. The main characters are involved, and most of them are complex. There is, thankfully, a definitive lack of damsels in distress (there are lots of strong female characters in this book), although there are a few knights in shining armor (okay, not necessarily masculine characters dressed in metal, but still…) The action is enough in the realm of fantasy to keep from feeling bizarre but different enough to pique interest even within the genre. And it’s not all just hack and slash action, but has a pretty deep religious and philosophical edge to it, as well.

I found the religious aspect of it to be especially intriguing. Much like the main religions in our mundane world, The Priory of the Orange Tree has two widely divergent religions and two widely divergent world views that nevertheless grew from the same root, and adherents of each (in good faith) believe their truth to be the only valid one. This, of course, affects not only culture but also travel and commerce, both positively and negatively. That the religions have dragons at their core is a very compelling factor.

That’s all good, and at times quite captivating. The caveats I have, however, come from a disappointing adherence to tired, overused tropes.

The first one is the strict duality that defines most of the secondary characters, to some degree many of the main characters, and virtually all of the places and motives that drive the action: the age old adage of good vs evil. Evil places are stereotypically evil and dark in their color palette, their feel, their ugliness. Good places are, of course, incredibly beautiful, colorful, gracious. Good people are good, beautiful and selfless, bad people are bad, false and selfish.

Also, a heckuva lot happens “conveniently”- a pet peeve of mine. Call it fate all you want, but when things just happen to work out the way the story needs it to, despite all odds; when characters are able to perform feats beyond their training and/or station; when everyone is so very good at what they do (and we’re asked often to know that despite how they appear) and yet can go beyond even that; when what is assured to kill does not, when what is avowed to be beyond human endurance instead isn’t, when the impossible becomes attainable often, then the story starts to ring hollow, and The Priory of the Orange Tree definitely suffers in this.

To be sure, it’s a fun read. A good one, even. There were wonderful moments and interesting divergences in the plot, a well developed world mythology including a not so typical take on dragons, some absolutely wonderful characters (all those strong women!), and some thought provoking discussions between those wonderful characters. But while The Priory of the Orange Tree does have a lot going for it, it stumbles too often to be on my Favorites shelf, nor even in my Favorites bookcase.

Of course, that’s just me. If you enjoy high fantasy and have a love of strong women – and dragons! – I urge you to check it out. It’s certainly worth the read.

—Sharon Browning

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