Set in a world of dragons, magic and court rivalries, “The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon is an unparalleled epic fantasy.
When it comes to world building, fantasy books need to introduce a vast universe while still making us feel at home. There are grand myths and scenic descriptions that give us the ability to imagine and escape. But in order to craft great fantasy, there must be an element of human connection.
Shannon creates the perfect balance in “Priory.” Even if I was a little lost in the beginning (this is normal in all fantasies since there’s such a massive learning curve in a new world), I was curious, not frustrated. She introduces unfamiliar lore at just the right pace and gives excellent characters to relate to. The reader’s imagination has room to run, but Shannon gives enough detail to construct the right scenario. When I was riding on the back of a dragon, Shannon described the exhilaration and wind I was feeling, while I could piece together my own vision for the specific twisting landscape of Seiiki, the land she created for this one-shot fantasy.
In addition to world-building, the plot of “Priory,” in all its 830-page glory, is immensely impressive for how it ties together every character’s journey. And there is a larger number of characters, with four narrators always in different places with different people. A spy and her queen in the West. A dragon rider in the East. An alchemist and his lover, and a loyal Lord trying to find his way home. I thought I’d get lost, but I truly never did; I only found my way more with each voice and story.
Somehow, Shannon made me care about every single character. Usually when reading books with multiple points of views, I’m bored by some of them and want to skip to the next one. But each point of view in “Priory” is integral to the plot. Each character has their own secrets, ambitions and loves. In the end, Shannon makes you deeply care about each one. She sees each story through and does not let the reader down.
While “Priory” certainly engages the reader through exciting tales and excellent character building, it also encourages us to ponder religion, morality and the existential in life. Whether you’re following a sword fight in the sky or falling in love with Queen Sabran, you’re challenged to think about life differently. Shannon explores not only the dangers of religion but the exceptional hope it brings to people. She shows us what true growth can look like and how even the most sheltered can evolve. Even when they feel the most invisible, in “Priory,” characters can still change the world.
After all, as one character says, “We may be small, and we may be young, but we will shake the world for our beliefs.”
These detailed themes allow Shannon to effortlessly create a truly diverse story. As an Asian American woman, I’ve always felt small in fantasy. I needed to force my way into a world that was supposed to be filled with the most wild and creative characters. Where was my magic-filled, sword-wielding representation?
In “Priory,” I saw myself and the representation I always wanted. Shannon’s characters include women who love who they want and who are proud of their countries and heritages; women with powerful voices filled with fun and complexity. From hero to villain and every character in between, there is genuine diversity.
Of course, the main critique is how utterly massive this book is. With so much happening in one book, there’s a chance of overwhelming the reader. Sometimes the plot seemed to move a little too fast, with characters traversing the desert in a couple pages or some events aligning too perfectly just to move the characters along. However, I didn’t feel like I missed key details. I enjoyed how perfectly the characters intertwined with the plot and felt it more a strength than a weakness.
To readers looking to tackle this book, “Priory” may seem very intimidating on a bookshelf. I’m someone who loves to binge read, but I know that’s not for everyone. Shannon herself recommends dividing the book up into its six parts; put sticky notes on the start of each one and treat each part as its own book. With tabs, it looks less intimidating and more time-friendly.
All in all, five stars for “The Priory of the Orange Tree.” It not only includes extraordinary fantasy and brilliant storytelling but is the world I’ve always searched for and an adventure of a lifetime.
Sarah Goh covers the unexpected and overlooked in people and communities.
Read more of the May 18-24, 2022 issue.