Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree (2019) is a fantasy novel. Almost immediately after opening the book, we are quickly introduced to a startling number of characters within the first three chapters with almost no exposition. This book belongs to standalones, a niche fantasy genre. There are not many examples, not only because the genre itself demands length and exploration, but also because the readers of such stories typically want to know more about what is happening and ‘why’ it happened, writes Sarazeen Saif Ahana
FANTASY is famous for two defining characteristics: the massive worlds that many authors build for their characters to inhabit and the enormous size of each ponderous tome. While I am generally a fan of both, there are times when I just want a rich, beautiful fantasy world to explore — for a short time.
This is where that rare sub-species of fantasy takes centre stage — standalones. These are extremely hard to find in fantasy, not only because the genre itself demands length and exploration, but because the readers of such stories typically want to know more about what is happening and ‘why’ it happened. This makes it extremely difficult to find a book that contains a beautiful story that is begun and then completed within its covers.
The Priory of the Orange Tree is one such, special not only because it is a standalone but also because it has been compared to George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire and I can see why.
The author, Samantha Shannon, builds a vivid, large-as-life world with a full story that folds itself perfectly within the covers.
Almost immediately upon opening the book, we are quickly introduced to a startling number of characters within the first three chapters with almost no exposition (which is both great for the readers and confusing for the uninitiated). Shannon does an excellent job in keeping you hooked even if you have no idea what anything means.
Priory has something of an ensemble cast of characters with no select main character. We're also treated to multiple-narrator storytelling, which might be jarring for some people but would work wonderfully for many.
Ead, Tané, and Niclays are three major characters of the book. Discussing the plot in too much detail might give spoilers to potential readers, but these three characters have uprooted my ideas of typical fantasy storytellers.
Ead (Eadaz du Zāla uq-Nāra, sometimes going by the alias Ead Duryan) is an elite member of the secret organisation called the Priory of the Orange Tree. The Priory itself has a fascinating history, but Ead (even more than Tané) stood out as the character of the story, even though half of that spotlight belongs to Tané.
We are instantly aware of the level of her genius as she begins the story by silently killing the queen's would-be assassin and then slipping into the night before she can be discovered. In a pleasant turn of events, we eventually discover that she is homosexual — and I cannot remember cheering this hard for a fictional character in months.
LGBTQ community does not get enough representation in fantasy, and this is not only written well, but it fits extremely well with Ead in general. She continues to get progressively cooler with each subsequent chapter, and the final battle sequence would simply take the breath away from readers.
Tané is second, only because there are very few people (fictional or otherwise) who are as awe-inspiring as Ead. It is a close competition, however, because Tané is her own brand of amazing and ‘Priory’ stands as a testament to that.
An orphaned girl who had dreamt of becoming a dragon rider for as long as she could remember, Tané achieves her cherished dream and then realises what she has paid for it: the death of two innocents (directly because of her), one of whom was her closest friend.
Her decision to condemn an innocent comes back to haunt her quickly, leading to the capture and torture of her dragon and her being stripped of all her titles and achievements. The loss of her dragon, in particular, breaks her down as her culture worships dragons.
Despite thinking that she is beyond redemption, she overcomes her depression and goes after her dragon. The way she confronts the captors is honestly one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire book, and I had goose-bumps when she spared the pirate queen — with the promise to someday return and get her vengeance.
Now come to Niclays. The amount of diversity Shannon included in her story is really appreciable. It is not in-your-face and it is not obvious; it is smooth and very tastefully written. Her diversity does not exist for the sake of diversity, but because it is normal, natural and real. It is not just racial or cultural diversity either, that she writes about.
We have strong characters, weak characters, characters that are senselessly evil and characters that were pushed into their bad decision. The real world is not made of perfect people, and her story reflects that. We have an important character that is more cowardly and selfish than you'd expect such a character to be.
Niclays is that character. Niclays has one of the most heart-warming story arcs in the entire book. A heartbroken, alcoholic in exile, I did not expect him to be a character of any significance at all. He has a horrible knack for being in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time with the worst combination of people.
To give you a general idea, he is bullied into harbouring a fugitive, arrested for it, imprisoned, fails at blackmail, is captured by pirates, taken to a mythical island, has his right hand cut off, and then sleeps through one of the most momentous events in history.
In short, interacting with Niclays was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. He is desperate to protect his skin, does not consider the consequences of his actions and is just a general disaster. However, his one great redeeming quality is that he is capable of deep, pure love.
He is another homosexual character who is not homosexual for the sake of it, but because that is simply who he is and it would be strange to be otherwise. He is old, depressed and desperate but he is capable of change, strong enough to handle the hardships that come his way and I closed the book thinking his experiences had damaged him — but also transformed him into a better version of himself.
I give The Priory of the Orange Tree a cool 4 out of 5, taking a point off because the finishing left some loose ends and a handful of unanswered questions. Tané, in particular, did not get a decent end scene at all, and that broke my heart.
Don't let that discourage you, though. This is a book that is definitely worth staying up for almost seventy-two hours and nearly starving yourself.
Sarazeen Saif Ahana is a student of Independent University-Bangladesh
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