I stopped and started and almost put down this novel many, many times. By the second half, I was hate-reading it—or so I told myself. Maybe I was just reading it for the dragons. I like dragons. The audible narration saved me, because reading this novel in its physical form was an exercise in dispassion. I can only compare the experience to Lord of the Rings. Priory often reads like a textbook full of unlikeable characters that I still didn’t care about 600 pages in. The plot is fine; impressive, even, in its scope; the worldbuilding is lush and creative and beautiful and again, I like dragons, but…the dry, weak writing style made none of it worth it.
A world divided. A queendom without an heir. An ancient enemy awakens.
… The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction – but assassins are getting closer to her door.
… Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.
… Across the dark sea, Tané has trained to be a dragonrider since she was a child, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.
… Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.
They were honeycombs of secret places, fragile and intricate. Ead shivered as the night welcomed her skin.
It’s actually hard for me to put my finger on why I found Priory so hard to read. I feel I should like many of the characters—they’re strong, mostly female, and complex. They have character arcs that make sense.
Despite the book’s famously immense length, I didn’t get enough time with any of the characters. Niclays, Ead, Tané, Loth: only four, so you’d imagine I might become attached to at least one. Unfortunately, for the first five hundred pages, here were my opinions of them:
- Roos is a bad, cowardly person who consistently makes bad, cowardly choices. There is a glaring hole in his character in that his life’s mission is creating the elixir of life, but he doesn’t actually seem interested in eternal life. At the very, very end of the book, this contradiction is addressed in a powerful and frankly wonderful way. Alas, far too late. Every Niclays chapter was a slog.
- What does Ead actually feel about things? Why does she like about Sabran? The book only tells us, never shows. Ead shows no appreciation—indeed, she shows little reaction—when Sabran does anything reaction-worthy. Why does she feel loyal to the Priory? Where is the evidence that she hates court so much, where is the conflict of her wondering ifs he really does? Ead is so detached and aloof at court for so much of the novel that we hardly see her engage with the world around her. It makes reading her character feel a bit like chewing cardboard decorated to look like cake.
- Tané is at least more engaged. I liked the concepts in her chapters. But they were short, and Tané’s story feels shoehorned into the story so that she can become an extremely convenient piece of the whole much (MUCH) later. And like Shannon’s other writing, what should have been an extremely likeable character with a beautiful character arc fell flat and dry, full of purple prose in the wrong places and struggling to find emotional connection.
- Loth is a spoiled, naïve man who gets lucky a lot. He reminded me of a character straight out of Tolkein, but with less whimsy and personality. He has exciting adventures, sure. I think I literally spoke to my book during one of them, saying, “I really don’t care if you die, dude.”
Again, this was only the first two-thirds of the book. But that’s a lot! And the marginal payoff later on isn’t worth it.
So, why do I want more time with the characters? Well, a lot happens to them. So a lot of the time we spend with them is spent methodically unspooling the plot. Not only is it a lot to keep track of—that part can even be fun, for a fantasy lover—but it’s distracting from the characters. The result is…soulless.
Which brings me to my thesis: this story obviously should have been split into two or three books. It’s a popular formula in fantasy for a reason. The book even did it a little itself, split in to six parts. I’m not just whining here—War and Peace is also a long book, but that is one book. Likewise is Gone With the Wind, or any of Brian Sanderson’s tomes. But Priory did not work as one single novel.
AN EMBARRASSMENT OF CONCEPTS
East versus West. Matriarchy and childbirth. Religious intolerance. Plague. Closemindedness and skepticism and credulousness. Heroics and cowardice. Piracy and loyalty. Redemption, alcoholism, and the power of fairy tales. Oedipus complexes and chosen ones.
There are too many ideas swirling in this novel. As a result, few of them are addressed to a satisfying extent. Instead, we get a hint of each, but only insofar as it touches the plot. As with the characters, the arc with many of these concepts accelerates only at the end of the (800-page) novel. The Big Bad Threat is coming, and so everyone must come together. The truth must come out in large, anti-climactic info-dumps. Religious difference is magically overcome because, well, it has to or else what was the point of writing about it this whole time? There is a powerful character we only meet at the end who is conveniently open-minded—conveniently uniting. Though Shannon gives even this character an entire life’s story. (I didn’t care, even a little bit.)
The Priory of the Orange Tree is not about overcoming religious difference. It is not about women ruling societies. It is not about the power of myth or the nature of power.
It could have been about any of these things. But they all jostle one another for space. So they all fall a little flat, and Priory is about none of them.
…and, in that whole big, long, book…
there weren’t enough dragons.
If you like Lord of the Rings, read this book. Feminist successor to LOTR it is.
I did not like Lord of the Rings.
I do not like textbooks.
The prose occasionally took my breath away. Often it crossed into purple prose—too ornate, not relevant at all—but sometimes it was…exquisite.
Plum rain, the Seiikinese called it at this time of the year, when the air hung thick and damp as cloud and fruit swelled on the trees.
The plot is very, very impressive. A huge multitude of storylines and motivations and characters and places are intricately and expertly woven together to create something generally believable without the need for anything like Tolkien’s eagels-ex-machina.
While I did not enjoy Priory of the Orange Tree, I can certainly admire the accomplishment of it. Sometimes the writing is beautiful, and the ideas for the characters are beautiful, and Shannon’s imagination is an interesting place abounding with fresh and colorful and delicious ideas. So again—if LOTR is your thing, go for it.
If it’s not, I recommend the Temerarire series. That’s about dragons, and it has lots of dragons, and Napoleon, too.