The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon reviewed by Chey
High fantasy is one of those genres that people can find incredibly intimidating if they've never read much of the genre before. The books are often gigantic and long, the language old and weird. It's a behemoth of a mountain to climb and can take forever just to start, let alone finish.
Despite sitting at just over 800 pages long (!), the time spent reading Samantha Shannon's adult high fantasy The Priory of the Orange Tree feels like no time at all. It's got all the typical fantasy elements - magic, dragons, quests and the like, but there's a key difference for why I couldn't put this one down.
High fantasy can seem intimidating to not only a lot of young people trying to get started in the genre but also for many women, people of colour, and queer folks. There is usually next to no representation in a lot of the most famous books in this genre, and most of the time representation is limited to a diverse character's discrimination and subjugation. It can become tiring to read when, as a reader, all you want is to be represented in a positive way. The medieval-esque setting of a lot of high fantasy books leads a lot of authors to think that the same social rules should apply in their books – but it's fantasy, so why is it necessary?
The Priory of the Orange Tree is an example of a high fantasy book that not only shows that continued discrimination in high fantasy is unnecessary, but also that intersectional feminism makes these stories better. Shannon makes the primary bulk of her main characters women – all of which are incredibly different. Priory follows a myriad of different stories that collide across a divide between East and West. In the West, myth and legend form the basis of a society living in fear from the threat of the inevitable rise of a vengeful dragon. Here our story centers on Ead, a powerful mage sent undercover to protect Queen Sabran the Ninth from assassination as the House of Berethnet awaits its next female heir to fulfil an age old legend. In the East, rather than being feared, dragons are revered and their riders respected. The story here follows Tanè, a talented dragonrider, as she grapples with right and wrong in her pursuit of destiny. There’s all the standard fantasy tropes, but somehow Shannon’s story feels like something fresh and new.
It’s likely because where other novels fail to centre women and provide real, legitimate representation, Priory makes it its greatest strength. All of the diverse characters in this story span across a vast world of disparate systems, beliefs and cultures. These seemingly disconnected journeys intertwine and collide in an exciting kaleidoscope of cultures, religions, beliefs and identities that form the integral fabric of the entire narrative. The book emphasises and plays on these differences to create a compelling tale of truth and myth – when all you have are legends, how do you know what’s truly real? Clashing truths exist simultaneously until characters are forced to come to terms with their differences for the sake of survival and, as is usually the case, the fate of the world. Given this, without its diversity, the story Shannon creates simply wouldn't exist.
Even though Priory of the Orange Tree is a long (very long) book with all the hallmarks of a high fantasy epic, it's easy readability is down to the fact that it tackles the biggest myth of all - that diversity doesn’t belong in high fantasy. When a book places value in its minority characters and uses them to enrich its story, rather than relying on their struggle to fuel narratives, the result is something genuinely exciting and meaningful. Because if dragons and sorcerers and witches and pirates can exist in these worlds, then why can’t I?