The last standalone epic fantasy of significant length I read was Jacqueline Carey’s magisterial Starless (2018), a novel told from the perspective of its sole narrator, and one so deftly paced that it seems precisely as long as it needs to be, and no longer. Samantha Shannon is a younger and less experienced writer than Carey, and The Priory of the Orange Tree is her first published epic fantasy and her first published standalone novel. It may be unfair of me to judge them by the same standards, but while The Priory of the Orange Tree does eventually get its legs underneath it for a satisfying endgame, it remains something of an unbalanced, unwieldy beast.
In plain terms, it might have been a better book for being, oh, let’s say three-quarters of the book it actually is. Its eight-hundred-odd pages spend a long time establishing character and setting, with occasional diversions to recount the odd fable or two. I nearly gave up in frustration several times before reaching the 250-page mark—had I not been reading it for review and promised ahead of time that the novel’s two most interesting characters at that point would end up in a queer relationship that I thought looked fascinatingly impossible, I would have. It’s only halfway through that matters become reasonably tense and compelling. That’s quite a while to wait.
The gist of the story concerns the rise of an ancient evil, defeated and imprisoned once a thousand years previously: the Nameless One. The Nameless One is a kind of fire-breathing dragon, attended by an army of other fire-breathing dragons. Much of the circumstances surrounding his original defeat are shrouded in myth and misinformation, and many records destroyed by time. In the countries of the West, which call themselves “Virtudom” (something of an analogue of pre-Reformation western Europe’s “Christendom”), it is believed that the line of Berethnet holds the key to his continued imprisonment. As long as the ruling line of Berethnet continues—a chancy prospect, since they run to a single daughter in every generation, and no sons—so too does the prison of the Nameless One. The latest queen of the Berethnet line is Sabran, young, isolated, proud, and rigid.
In the countries of the East, it is believed that the water-dragons defeated the Nameless One, and the water-dragons are revered as gods. The East has shut its gates to the West for fear of the so-called draconic plague, and the West derides and fears the East as heretics, “wyrm-lovers,” and potential allies of the Nameless One because of their attitude to the water-dragons. There, Tané, a potential dragonrider in training, commits a crime out of ambition when she doesn’t immediately report a stray Westerner to the authorities for fear having discovered him (and perhaps exposed herself to the plague) would interfere with her prospects. The consequences for her choice result in death for her closest, oldest friend (and implied, lover).
Ead Duryan is a daughter of the heretic (but dragon-hating) South, pledged to a secret order who learn magic that is forbidden elsewhere and who dedicate themselves to killing dragons and other servants of the Nameless One. She has been undercover in Sabran’s court for years, sent to protect the queen’s life lest it truly be the key to preserving the world from the Nameless One. The ties she’s formed in her new land have grown strong enough to compete with her loyalty to her old home, especially if it sends her new orders.
Ead and Tané are two of four viewpoint characters, including the old and self-focused alchemist Niclays Roos (caught in resentment at a lengthy exile, and grief for a long-dead lover), and the youthful and boring Lord Arteloth (“Loth”) Beck, who is brave in an entirely tedious sort of way. The narrative comes together to reveal centuries-old secrets, the truth behind old myths, and a means to defeat the Nameless One if long-divided West and East can put aside enough of their differences to work together. But these difficulties are less compelling than the relationship between Tané and her dragon, strained by pirates and kidnapping, and between Ead and the queen to whom she has, reluctantly, realised she’s given her loyalty—just in time for politics to see Ead condemned as a heretic and a traitor and forced to flee when Sabran needs loyal protection most.
I must confess to being out of charity with novels (especially fantasy novels) that divide the world into East and West, North and South (always capitalised), and base the cultural markers very clearly on much-simplified elements from our own history. The major countries of The Priory of the Orange Tree‘s East that we see can be divided into “fantasy Japan” and “fantasy China,” while there is a direct Netherlands-analogue (down to permitted trade with the Japan-analogue) within the region that borrows so liberally from ideas of western Europe’s “Christendom.” (It turns out that Virtudom is built on a deliberate lie, so that’s unsubtle commentary.) These simplified divisions tend to leave out the rich narrative and thematic possibilities that more complicated visions of inter- and intra-national politics offer.
I’m also out of charity with evil for evil’s sake. The Bad Thing is COMING TO DESTROY YOU, and it wants to destroy you because it’s bad. And it’s bad because it wants to destroy you. This lacks… nuance. And interest. Natural disasters are so frightening because they have no intent, and human evil is so disturbing because people could make other choices and don’t. But malicious destructive cosmic forces that are destructive and malicious by nature feel rather more laughable than compelling to me. In narrative terms, it lets human evils off the hook too easily.
There are more human evils in The Priory of the Orange Tree, and when the novel allows them to move to the forefront—when it dwells on politics and personal ambition—it immediately becomes more compelling, more tense, and more interesting. But the ultimate focus on a Bad Thing That Is Bad allows them no space to grow a thematic argument of any complexity.
It is a complexity—moral, thematic, and social—that The Priory of the Orange Tree is short on, for all its length. There’s something naive about it, for all the characters feel like young people, even the ones who are well past middle age. They don’t carry with them awareness of consequences, nor the knowledge that sometimes all your choices are pretty crap ones and that struggling with all your might still means you might fall short and have to live with that, because the world has rigged the deck against you. (I read The Priory of the Orange Tree back to back with E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward, a much shorter epic fantasy but one that feels much more human and complex, because it deals with harsh consequences of making the best decision that its characters knew how to make.)
It’s not that I have nothing good to say about The Priory of the Orange Tree: There are some excellent scenes, a really good slow-burn romance, and some solid novel buried within those eight hundred pages. All the countries and regions we see are, despite their many and manifest faults, accepting of queer sexuality and queer marriage, and it always pleases me to read an epic fantasy where a majority of the viewpoint characters are queer.
Ultimately, though, while The Priory of the Orange Tree does reckon complete-in-a-single-volume in its favour, I can’t recommend it unless you have a lot of patience to reach a payoff that’s only middlingly well done.
Marks for effort, but the execution could be a lot tighter.
The Priory of the Orange Tree is available from Bloomsbury.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.